Thirty years ago, Michael Kinsley, then with The New Republic, sought to prove his theory that few of Washington’s elites actually read the highfalutin best sellers that they dutifully buy and profess to admire. At a local bookstore, he slipped a note with his phone number deep into the pages of hot new books by the likes of the foreign-policy hand Strobe Talbott and the political pundit Ben Wattenberg, promising a $5 reward to anyone who read that far. Kinsley reported that no one called.
In the digital age, we have the technology to address this same question on a national scale. This summer, a University of Wisconsin mathematician, Jordan Ellenberg, created a small stir by inventing what he called the “Hawking Index” in honor of Stephen Hawking’s much-praised, if not necessarily much-read, A Brief History of Time. Using Amazon’s posted lists of the top five “popular highlights” in books notated by Kindle readers—and the page numbers those highlights fall on—Ellenberg crafted a quasi-scientific formula to compute how thoroughly best sellers were being consumed. At the high end by far was Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, which scored an anomalous 98.5 percent on the Hawking Index. Among nonfiction books, Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys was a leader, at 21.7 percent. At the bottom, breaking Hawking’s previous low (6.6 percent), was the most-written-about best seller of the year, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, at 2.4 percent. It didn’t take long for a wiseass at the Washington Post to note that another best seller fell still lower than Piketty on the Hawking scale, at 2.04 percent: Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices.
It has been an unexpectedly hard summer for Hard Choices—and, by implication, for its author. The book had a dream rollout worthy of J. K. Rowling: a prime-time ABC special with Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America with Robin Roberts, a CNN town hall with Christiane Amanpour, Jane Pauley on CBS, The Daily Show, online Q&As at Facebook and Twitter, even a respectful interview with Greta Van Susteren and Bret Baier at Fox News. But the book tour was stalked by controversies—Clinton’s tone-deaf complaint about being “dead broke” after leaving the White House in 2001, her fumbled answers to questions about her astronomical speaking fees. And much of the press was unkind to Hard Choices itself. You know a Clinton book is in trouble when one of its few partisans is a Fox News personality—Van Susteren, who called it “a fun read.” John Dickerson of Slate spoke for many of those hardy few who actually read the book from cover to cover when he described it as “the low-salt, low-fat, low-calorie offering with vanilla pudding as the dessert.” The only news in Hard Choices was not to be found in its 656-page ocean of prose but in the subtext. Despite Clinton’s disingenuous claim in the epilogue about 2016 (“I haven’t decided yet”), no one in her right mind would write a fat book this dull, this unrevealing, and this innocuous unless she were running for president.
The ultimate indignity arrived soon after publication: Following a brief reign as a No. 1 best seller, Hard Choices was toppled by Blood Feud: The Clintons vs. the Obamas, by Edward Klein, whose loathing of the Clintons is exceeded only by his loathing of the Obamas. Klein had no big book tour, no broadcast-network interviews, and almost no reviews. Yet once Blood Feud had usurped Hard Choices, Clinton never returned to the top of the Times list.
In terms of cumulative sales, the best-seller-list pecking order is a red herring. Hillary will easily outsell Klein in the final accounting; so large were her sales in that first week before word-of-mouth took its toll that it is statistically unimaginable that he could catch up. Nonetheless, the showing of Hard Choices is disappointing by Clinton standards—far below the benchmark set by her 2003 memoir, Living History. Extrapolating charitably from the sales figures tracked thus far by Nielsen BookScan, half of the 1 million copies in the “sold out” hardcover first printing may be returned by booksellers for a refund. By the time of publication, it was reported that signed copies of Hard Choices were selling for close to $400 on eBay. By last week, they were going begging by the score at $79.95.
The Clinton camp was sufficiently stung by the perception of failure to try to spin the numbers. Finally, spokesmen for all three Clintons were moved to release a joint statement attacking Klein and a couple of other anti-Clinton authors whose new titles have less successfully competed with Hard Choices this summer. Their books, the statement said, “should be reserved for the fiction bin, if not the trash … Legitimate media outlets who know with every fiber of their being that this is complete crap should know not to get down in the gutter with them and spread their lies.”