Building Capital

Despite the usual narrative, university presses are no strangers to bestsellers. Four years ago the first volume of University of California Press's Mark Twain autobiography reached the top of Amazon's list. Johns Hopkins's The 36-Hour Day is on its fifth edition, having sold more than 2.5 million copies since 1980. And the list goes on.

But Harvard University Press's Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, has redefined success. As of mid-May, the six-digit mark for sales of the book was well past, and multiple printers had been engaged to meet the unrelenting demand. The book had an official April release; HUP Sales and Marketing Director Susan Donnelly expected the sales count to be about 300,000 print by the end of May—remarkable for a forty-dollar economics hardback—plus another 50,000 ebooks sold.

Scholarly publishers have been following the relentless stream of headlines about Capital from the start. In mid-April Capital shared the top of Amazon's bestseller list with University of Chicago Press's House of Debt (another trade economics title). Days later came a writeup in the New Republic, focusing on the publishing story, announcing that the book's first run had sold out, its second was printing, and a third was on its way. Profuse attention from the New York Times and other media stoked the sales.

But the underdog angle in the New Republic's narrative belies the capacity of "tiny" (their word) Harvard University Press. An interview with acquiring editor Ian Malcolm in the Chronicle of Higher Education and a post on the HUP blog by sales representative John Eklund prove that Capital—as big as it has become—is in capable, experienced hands, managed by a press not wholly surprised by the title's success.

Capital was the press's lead title for the spring season. Harvard's lead titles are usually "a big, serious book of ideas that does well—fifty- to sixty-thousand in sales—and transitions into course adoption over time," said Donnelly. Capital fits that mold, more or less. Unlike most seasonal leads, it was a trade economics title and a translation, but Capital had already made solid headway in the French market. Once sales started racing, the press improved its fulfillment methods: new sales were anticipated through algorithms, and additional printers were recruited to keep pace with demand. "Nobody wants to take a risk," notes Donnelly, "but if something takes off, you need the systems in place. It's not just a matter of having the books in your warehouse; it's how quickly you can get them out ... You never know if [a book] is going to take, or when it's going to take."

"We're working really hard as a team," reports Donnelly. "Not just because of the financials of a bestseller, but to to see the results of their hard work rewarded is a happy thing for people. Most importantly, people work in university presses because of the ideas, and we're working to make this book as widely available as it can be ... I think everyone feels really good about participating on that level."

Regan Colestock
Communications Strategist, AAUP