Hillary Clintonâ€™s new book, â€œWhat Happened,â€ comes out Tuesday and features her reflections on the 2016 election. Whether itâ€™ll enter the pantheon of great campaign memoirs or turn out to be just another post-politics potboiler, â€œWhat Happenedâ€ is by all appearances the first hot political book of the fall.
It also apparently offers some compelling content, including relitigating internecine fights in the Democratic Party, openly assailing the character of a sitting president and recounting the inside story of one of the most stunning campaign failures in U.S. history. And that, by itself, might distinguish it from the political memoir genre in general. Political books written around a presidential election are usually a mixture of ghostwritten policy proposals slammed together with a series of mediocre pseudo-biographical stories that often backfire on a contender mid-race.These paperweights are defined by long subtitles and the struggle of making a politician a likable protagonist.
But people still read them. Well, sort of. I was curious how far readers typically make it through these books. I couldnâ€™t get any reading data, but I reached out to Audiobooks.com for listening data on political memoirs by presidential candidates going back to the 2000 election. We focused on books by every â€œseriousâ€ candidate published before or shortly after each presidential election â€” â€œseriousâ€ as defined by my colleague Harry Enten back before the 2016 election. (Basically, any candidate who held a major political office before running or got at least a bit of the vote in Iowa or New Hampshire.) Audiobooks.com was able to find the books with more than 10 downloads and sent over the average percentage of the book that listeners sat through.
Before we get to the data, there are some caveats! If you donâ€™t see a book on here, remember that not all books have an audio version widely available. Moreover, sales for some of these books peaked long before Audiobooks.com began collecting data. Second, if a completion rate number seems low, keep in mind that most people donâ€™t finish reading most things. Most likely, less than half of the people who started this article made it to this sentence. Itâ€™s the nature of the game.
There are two ways to slice this data.
First, you can look at the percentage of the book the average listener played (the second column from the right). The average reader made it through three-quarters of â€œFaith of My Fathersâ€ by John McCain. Thatâ€™s ridiculously high. Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee all had average completion percentages, between 65 and 70 percent, for â€œAmerican Dreams,â€ â€œUnintimidated,â€ and â€œGod, Guns, Grits, and Gravy,â€ respectively. The books that donâ€™t do so well by this measure come from both sides of the aisle, but they do have one thing in common: Theyâ€™re looooong.
So the other way to gauge whoâ€™s written the most engaging political books is to look at how much time listeners are spending with them. (The right-most column.) We can use the average amount of time spent listening to a book â€” completion percentage multiplied by book length â€” which doesnâ€™t penalize books for being lengthier. In this case, â€œDecision Points,â€ the presidential memoir by President George W. Bush, â€œHard Choices,â€ the 2014 memoir by Hillary Clinton, and â€œA Time for Truthâ€ by Ted Cruz come out looking very good. It turns out that people are willing to listen to Bush, Clinton and Cruz speak uninterrupted for many more hours than I expected. Seriously, the fact that George W. Bush is not only an accomplished author but perhaps the most successful author in his field (at least by one metric) is not a notion I would have even entertained before I started digging into this. Well done, Dubs.
What about the books that listeners barely made a dent in? Second from the bottom is â€œGreat Again: How to Fix Our Crippled Americaâ€ by President Trump, and in last place is â€œIt Takes a Village,â€ a slimmed-down version of a 1996 Hillary Clinton volume that was later turned into a picture book.