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Piketty's 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century' becomes huge bestseller

Jia Lynn Yang
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.
The new book by economist Thomas Piketty, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" is a runaway hit, perched at the top of Amazon.com's bestsellers chart and temporarily sold out on the website.

The book has sold about 48,000 hardcover copies and 8,000 to 9,000 e-book versions, according to Susan Donnelly, sales and marketing director at Harvard University Press, the publisher behind the English-language version of the book. (The book was written originally in French and released there last year.)

There are presses cranking it out in the United States, India and Britain, and the book is in at least its fourth run. Even though "Capital" was already a hit in its native France, it's now taking off among English readers around the world, said Donnelly. She expects that sales in China, Hong Kong and Japan will also soon follow.

Piketty, already widely cited for his work on income inequality, has clearly touched a nerve. Many societies around the world are grappling with a growing gap between rich and poor, especially in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, and the issue has become politically charged.

Piketty's book has made waves because it argues that the underlying mechanisms of capitalism tend towards massive inequality. He writes that the era between 1930 and 1975 — often hailed for the way in which wealth was broadly shared — was actually a departure from the norm.

That period of economic growth, he says, was the result of unusual circumstances such as World War II, a global depression and the government's actions in the aftermath of those events: strong policies raising taxes and increasing regulation. But now, with many of those policies rolled back, societies are reverting back to extreme inequality.

The unlikely bestseller, clocking in at nearly 700 pages, is already serving as an interesting case study for modern book publishing.

One of the hallmarks of the book's success is that it is sold out on Amazon, even though there is a digital version available on Kindle, too.

"You can have it on your e-book reader, but that's not the same as having the book," said Donnelly. "I'm not saying this book is a Tiffany's bag, but nobody goes to Tiffany's and buys something and doesn't get that little blue bag. I think there's still some of that about books."

Another possible factor is that the Kindle version retails for nearly as much as the hardcover on Amazon, with the digital book costing $21.99 compared to $24.76 for the physical copy.

The bestseller is already poised to become the most popular book ever for Harvard University Press, better known for serious intellectual tomes than for big bestsellers. Piketty's book has sold 57,000 copies after only a few weeks on sale. By comparison, the press' last two successes sold 60,000 each in their first year, said Donnelly. She predicts that Piketty's book will become akin to another classic for the publisher, John Rawls' "A Theory of Justice."

"It's going in that small cluster of books that makes a real contribution to intellectual and moral discussions in our day," she said.

Donnelly added that even though the book is sold out on Amazon, copies are still available for purchase directly from the publisher.

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