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Piketty's 'Capital': A Hit That Was, Wasn't, Then Was Again

How the French tome has rocked the tiny Harvard University Press


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.

By contrast, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has already sold around 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 figure 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 HUP 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.

“It’s really been exciting,” said Donnelly. “People I haven’t talked to for years are calling me up: ‘You know I’m reading about your book!’”

And the majority of this success has happened in just the past 10 days, according to Donnelly, coinciding with a whirlwind tour Piketty conducted in the United States last week. “Between the past two days, we’ve sent 25,000 copies of the book into the world,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “People would buy more if we had ‘em.” As of Thursday morning, it remained the number-one bestseller on Amazon, where the hardcover is out of stock, and has reportedly entered the New York Times bestseller list. (Donnelly estimated that of the current English-language sales figures, 14,000 come from the United Kingdom and Europe.)

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

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. (Disclosure: the book’s translator, Arthur Goldhammer, is my cousin.)

The demand has been ginned up mostly since Piketty arrived stateside at the beginning of last week. Like the Beatles 50 years ago, he turned left at Greenland and, with his nice suits, boyish looks, and impeccable accent, set off a frenzy upon arriving. He met with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and did several events a day in D.C., New York City, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. “That schedule that he had last week was punishing,” Donnelly, who saw him briefly when he was interviewed at HUP’s Cambridge office, told me. “He spoke at Harvard, he spoke at MIT, he was interviewed. Maybe he had a peanut. And then he was off to the West Coast the next day.”

Those in the know have known of Piketty for years. His research with collaborators like Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley and Anthony Atkinson of Oxford has, since 2003, uncovered the astounding concentration of wealth in the highest echelon of American society, giving rise to all those Occupy slogans about “the 1%.”

HUP began to ramp up publicity several months ago. Capital in the Twenty-First Century was the lead book in its spring catalogue, disseminated in mid-November. Early this year, as the book gained greater attention—veteran political columnist Thomas B. Edsall published an extended riff on The New York Times’ website back in January, for instance—HUP decided to move the formal publication date from April 15 to early March.

But then came the first surprise: Even as the book garnered plenty of attention in the mainstream and left-wing press, not too much happened sales-wise. “There was decent demand, because certainly the reviews,” said Donelly, “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 it took several weeks for that to translate to strong sales. “The initial response from the marketplace was not in keeping with where we are right this second,” Donnelly told me.

Beau Rice, a bookseller at Los Angeles’ Skylight Books, reported Wednesday that this trajectory matched the store’s experience. “The guy who orders our books anticipated it would be a lot and be a big deal,” he said. “And then it wasn’t. And then suddenly it was.”

So what explains the book’s success? At The Upshot, economist Justin Wolfers argued Wednesday 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 HUP books: “We’re a university press. Our mission is to publish scholarship,” she explained. “Look at a map at 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.”

High sales are probably not a total shock. The book did do well, for a scholarly book, in French, Donnelly noted. (Last week, Piketty told me in New York City that it had sold 50,000 copies in French, which, he said, was high when adjusted for France’s lower population.) Donnelly noted that she had just received a request for more copies from a bookstore in Austin, Texas. Booksellers in D.C., in L.A., at A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wisconsin, and at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, told me of heightened interest and out-of-stock shelves. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tweeted Wednesday: “Honestly, people, Piketty’s Capital is not actually all *that* unlikely a bestseller.”

Still, it seems that the book is grabbing attention—and dollars—beyond the universe of coastal elites who watch “Morning Joe” and read publications with “new” in their titles. 

“It’s so interesting to see who buys that book,” said Rice, of Skylight, located in L.A.’s hip Los Feliz neighborhood. “I’m thinking of this one young woman who was very beautiful, very Hollywood-looking, who desperately wanted it.”