Piketty’s “Capital”: A Monster Hit for Harvard U Press

In Book Review by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

cover capitalWriting for the New Republic, Marc Tracy says that “Until this month, Harvard University Press had achieved two notable sales successes in the past 15 years. Stephen Jay Gould’s Dinosaurs in a Haystack: Reflections on Natural History and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age both sold around 60,000 copies in each one’s first year, making them blockbusters by HUP’s scholarly standards.

“In contrast, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has already sold 80,000 copies in less than two months, and is currently sold out. According to Susan Donnelly, sales and marketing director at the 101 year old house, that figures does not include an estimated 12,000 e-books sold (which Amazon is wisely peddling for a stratospheric $21.99), nor the 80,000 copies HYP is in the process of printing or the 35,000 it guesses it will print in the very near future. Do the math, and suddenly you are north of 200,000 books that the house expects to sell in a few months.”

Donnelly told the New Republic, “It’s really been very exciting. People I haven’t talked to for years are calling me up. ‘You know I’m reading about your book.’”

And even more impressive, the book’s explosive success has happened in just the last 10 days, as Piketty embarked on a quick tour of the United States. “Between the last two days, we’ve sent 25,000 copies of the book into the world she said on Wednesday the 23rd. As of last week, the book had become the number one-bestseller on Amazon, (where as of April 29th the book was out-of stock). Donnelly has estimated that 14,000 of the current English-language sales figures are from the UK and Europe.)

Lena Little, director of marketing at the Washington, D.C. independent bookstore Politics & Prose told Tracy that “We’ve definitely had high demand.” But the one surprise was just how unexpected the sudden demand was. “It wasn’t like, ‘We don’t have it, but we can get it in two days,’ like when there’s a good review in the Times or the Post,” she explained.

Tracy wrote that “Piketty’s book, which is to contemporary global wealth inequality what Moby-Dick is to whaling (except not made up), lacks the high-frequency trading of, say, Michael Lewis’s new Flash Boys, which reportedly sold 130,000 copies in its first week. But Flash Boys is not a 700-page economics tome translated from the French with a listed price of $39.95.”

Even so, it was obvious that HUP had high hopes for the book, giving it lead position in its spring catalog. And when the book began to garner attention as early as January, its publication date was bumped up from April 15th to early March.

But despite a lot of attention in both the mainstream and left-leaning press, book sales started surprisingly slowly. “There was decent demand, said Donnelly, “because certainly there reviews, and Paul Krugman, in particular, has been such an avid spokesperson for the book. There had been what we and most publishing houses would consider pretty strong interest.” But, as Tracy said, it took weeks for the interest to translate into strong sales. “The initial response from the marketplace was not in keeping with where we are right this second,” Donnelly told Tracy.

So what exactly explains the success of the book? Tracy points out that “At The Upshot, economist Justin Wolfers argued [last week] that Google search data reveals that Piketty is more popular in coastal states that are more liberal and wealthier than the country at large. Donnelly noted that such a distribution is true of most HYP books: ‘We are a university press. Our mission is to publish scholarship,’ she explained. ‘Look at a map where the schools are or the people working in that world – they’re concentrated on the coasts, maybe a little bit in the Chicago kind of area.’”

But even so, Tracy acknowledges that the book is garnering attention (and sales) beyond the so-called social elites “who watch Morning Joe and read publications with ‘new’ in their titles.”

As Beau Rice, a bookseller at Los Angeles’ Skylight Books observed, “It is interesting to see who buys that book. I’m thinking of this one young woman who was very beautiful, very Hollywood-looking who desperately wanted it.”

Note: Article was updated to correct a misspelling of the author’s name.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.