‘Hard Choices’ is a good example of why publishers don’t disclose advances

We don't know how much Hillary Clinton was paid as an advance on Hard Choices, her recently released book about her time at the State Department. Which makes it hard for us to judge how good a business decision the book was for its publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Sales of the book dropped substantially in its second week on the market. But the publisher is upbeat. "Most importantly," the publisher's spokesman told The New York Times about the roll-out, "reader reaction has been terrific." This is the book publishing equivalent of telling your kid that the important thing about his lopsided loss in soccer was that everyone had fun. Or winning an attendance award in school.


(EPA/SEAN MASTERSON)

The closest thing we have to an official estimate of Clinton's advance comes from industry rumors, reported directly by the New York Post and, more obliquely, by outlets like the Boston Globe. The figure that's floating out there? $14 million. That number hasn't been confirmed by Clinton or the publisher, but it doesn't seem completely out of line with reality. Clinton got $8 million for her previous book, Living History. Her husband got somewhere north of $10 million for his memoir My Life.

The problem for Simon & Schuster is that the book isn't performing as well as Clinton's previous book or other comparable works. (Obligatory caveat: It is selling better than other political nonfiction works that have come out recently -- if only barely.) The table below illustrates the challenge, using the listed Amazon prices for the book's hardcover and electronic versions.

Book format Week 1 Week 2
Hardcover, sales 85,721 48,227
Electronic, sales 15,000 (est) 8,500 (est)
Hardcover, income (at $35) $3 million $1.688 million
Electronic, income (at $15) $225,000 $127,500
Total income $3.225 million $1.815 million

There are a lot of assumptions built in there, such as the estimated sales of the electronic versions. Simon & Schuster reported only that total sales, including electronic formats, were over 100,000 in the first week. But the total earned, assuming all of those books were purchased at full price, is just over $5 million. And the advance isn't the only cost the publisher is trying to recoup, of course. There are printing costs and staff costs and promotional costs and so on.

More books will sell. But probably not enough. First week sales "typically account for about 30 percent of the total," the Times writes. That would put the total book sales at somewhere around 350,000. Even if all of those books sold for the full hardcover price of $35, that's only $12,250,000 in total income. Which, we remind you, is less than $14 million.

The news isn't all bad for the publisher. It is making an investment in Clinton that could pay off if, say, she runs for president and wins. It's likely that Simon & Schuster would be her first choice for publishing any post-White-House memoirs, too.

And, again, it's not like it's not selling at all. As CNN notes, it is "easily outselling such popular nonfiction works as Thomas Piketty's 'Capital In the Twenty-First Century.'" If you're outselling a dense look at global economics, you've got to be doing something right -- even if your concept of 21st century capital doesn't include an insistence on making a profit.

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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