“Hard Choices” is bombing, especially if you ask Hillary’s critics

This post has been updated.

Hey, did you know that Hillary Clinton's new book, Hard Choices, is selling pretty well? It "topped the Barnes & Noble best-seller list in its first week," as BuzzFeed reported on Monday. The publisher is "thrilled with 'Hard Choices' strong start right out of the gate," Politico quotes Simon & Schuster's president as saying. Also: The book is selling terribly. The book is a "bomb," per an unnamed source quoted at the Daily Mail. The New York Post used the same word, picking up a report from the Weekly Standard saying that the book had only sold about 84,000 copies.

So which is it? Boom or bust?

Well, Hard Choices has sold about 86,000 copies, which is not at the same level as Clinton's 2003 book, Living History. Is that good? Bad? It's not great, to be sure, but it's also a matter of perception. (Editor's note: "The Gospel According to the Fix" is currently ranked 336,285 in the Kindle e-book store on Amazon.)

A look at recent political books reinforces that it's hard to read a lot into public sales numbers.

Politician Book Sales figures Approval rating
Hillary Clinton Living History (2003) 40,000 in first day
600,000 in the first week
1 million in first month
About 50 percent
Bill Clinton My Life (2004) 400,000 on first day
2.2 million by 2010
66 percent (2001)
Sarah Palin Going Rogue (2009) 700,000 in first week 43 percent
George W. Bush Decision Points (2010) 2 million in first two months 34 percent (2009)
Hillary Clinton Hard Choices (2014) 86,000 in first week 44 percent

There's no clear link between popularity, sales, and time frame. Book sales don't tell us much, in part because we often rely on leaked figures or numbers released by publishers -- all of which are leaked with very specific motives in mind.

But we can't help ourselves, particularly in the current situation. Reports on Clinton's current book sales vary in tone partly because of the outlets doing the reporting. The Weekly Standard probably isn't enthusiastic about a Clinton presidency, so it picked up negative reports quickly. This happens. The conservative Daily Caller trumpeted the success of George Bush's book relative to Bill Clinton's. Fox News compared Palin's sales to Hillary Clinton's in 2003. And so on.

There's enormous media interest in a Hillary Clinton candidacy, and book sales seem like a proxy for public support. Which is why Clinton's team ramped down expectations for Politico's Maggie Haberman, saying that "it’s unusual for a second book to sell as well, and insist[ing] a better metric is other nonfiction books released this year." The Clinton team knows how these numbers will be seen.

Update: Two additional data points worth noting. At The Daily Beast, Jason Pinter of Polis Books compares sales of Hard Choices to sales of other presidential contenders. No Apology, the Mitt Romney 2012 campaign vehicle, sold 42,000 or so in its first week. Rick Perry's Fed Up sold 3,300 in its first week. Neither, it's safe to assume, had the same marketing infrastructure behind it as Clinton's new book, however.

To Politico's Haberman, Clinton's team also suggested that sales of "Hard Choices" be compared to books like those from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or former Defense Secretary Bob Gates. So we did that. To date, Gates' book, Duty, has sold 218,000 copies since its January release, according to Nielsen BookScan. Warren's book, A Fighting Chance, came out in April. It has only sold 62,000 copies -- despite being packaged by Amazon with a more-popular book from a former senator from New York.

books

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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