What Caused Atlas Shrugged Sales to Soar?

Sales of Atlas Shrugged have risen sharply this year, and various observers from the Ayn Rand Institute to the Economist have attributed the jump to “uncanny similarities between the plot-line of the book and the events of our day,” in the words of ARI’s Yaron Brook. The Economist writes,

Whenever governments intervene in the market, in short, readers rush to buy Rand’s book. Why? The reason is explained by the name of a recently formed group on Facebook, the world’s biggest social-networking site: “Read the news today? It’s like ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is happening in real life”.

Brook told CNN:

“So many people see the parallels with actually what’s going on, with the government taking over the banks, with the government kind of taking over the automobile industry, a president who fires the CEO of a major American corporation. These are the kind of things that come out of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ “

But is this story right? Do news headlines generate book sales? How did people who read about TARP or bank nationalizations know that those events were reminiscent of a novel published in 1957? Maybe their friends told them “It’s just like Atlas Shrugged,” and they ran out and bought the book.

Or maybe something more direct is required. One Atlas Shrugged fan suggested to me that the real boost came in January, with a Wall Street Journal article by my former colleague Stephen Moore. So I decided to investigate, using the sales figures in Nielsen’s Bookscan. And indeed those figures seem to point in a different direction. The boom in sales of Atlas Shrugged really took off in mid-January, after Steve Moore’s essay ”‘Atlas Shrugged’: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years” appeared in the Journal on January 9. Steve wrote:

Many of us who know Rand’s work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that “Atlas Shrugged” parodied in 1957….

For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises – that in most cases they themselves created – by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs … and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism….

David Kelley, the president of the Atlas Society, which is dedicated to promoting Rand’s ideas, explains that “the older the book gets, the more timely its message.” He tells me that there are plans to make “Atlas Shrugged” into a major motion picture – it is the only classic novel of recent decades that was never made into a movie. “We don’t need to make a movie out of the book,” Mr. Kelley jokes. “We are living it right now.”

Here’s a chart taken from Bookscan’s data on weekly sales of the mass-market paperback edition of Atlas Shrugged:

The sales in late 2008 are very similar to those in 2007, with a Christmas bump that was higher in 2008. But sales started to diverge after January 9, suggesting that it was in fact the Wall Street Journal essay that kicked them into high gear. Then they slowly fell, and then there was an even bigger peak in early March. Why? That’s not so clear. Perhaps it’s a case of self-fulfilling prophecy and the accumulating effects of media buzz. ARI put out its press release about soaring sales on February 23, and the Economist picked up the idea five days later, as did many bloggers. Then on March 2 and 5 the popular blogger Michelle Malkin talked about the idea of “Going Galt” – pulling back on work and investment in response to projected tax increases and regulations – in her blog and syndicated column, and the New York Times picked that up. Both Malkin and the Times’s Opinionator blog linked to the original ARI story about soaring sales, giving the idea further legs, and the Freakonomics blog picked up the Economist’s story. On March 14 the Wall Street Journal ran another op-ed on the contemporary relevance of Atlas Shrugged, this one by Yaron Brook. There’s a reason that publishers put “bestseller” on their book covers – people like to read what other people are reading. And there’s no question that once this media buzz got started, the sales have remained much higher than last year.

It seems that Greenspan, Bernanke, Fannie, Freddie, Barney Frank, Bush, Paulson, Geithner, and Obama all created the objective conditions for an Atlas Shrugged sales bump, but it took Steve Moore and subsequent commentators to create the “subjective conditions” – actually talking about the relationship of Atlas Shrugged to political and economic events – to set off the actual boom.

Two other minor points: The weekly sales in late 2007 were somewhat higher than in late 2006. So if you think, as the Economist suggests, that sales of Atlas Shrugged in the United States were pushed up by the British bailout of Northern Rock and the U.S. Treasury’s pressure on banks to assist subprime borrowers, then maybe the 2007 sales figures were already reflecting the impact of economic policy events. But the total sales in 2007 were barely ahead of 2006, and obviously the real jump has come this year.

Second, the bestselling edition of Atlas Shrugged is the mass-market paperback, which is of course the cheapest. That’s the edition whose sales are tracked in the chart. But the bestselling edition on Amazon is the more expensive trade paperback, which is the one whose sales the Economist analyzes. Why? Are Amazon customers older and more affluent, so that they prefer the larger book even at a higher cost? Do many local bookstores carry only the mass-market edition?

Thanks to C. Alexander Evans and Tom Firey for help in compiling and presenting these data.