While tens of thousands have descended on U.S. bookstores to buy Bill Clinton’s new autobiography, “My Life,” the former president’s account has also been edging its way off the shelves this side of the Atlantic — although at nowhere near the same rate.
“It’s the biggest book of the moment,” said Richard Humpheys, Borders U.K. office buyer for non-fiction.
But, with only 610 copies sold at Borders bookstores throughout the country on Tuesday, the day it went on sale, compared with 35,000 in the United States, he noted, “We’ve really only had the first wave of publicity, so we’ll probably see sales pick up this weekend.”
Meantime, Waterstones, Britain’s leading specialist bookstore, has projected the sale of 26,000 copies nationwide in the first 30 days, according to press officer Jo Marino.
The book was very prominently displayed at two of the largest bookstores in London on Wednesday — but, unlike the scenes in New York and other U.S. cities, there didn't appear to be any great rush to buy the 957-page autobiography.
Although many Americans have trouble remembering who the United Kingdom’s prime minister was when Clinton took office — John Major — Britons have no problem comparing the saxophone player from Little Rock’s policies with those of the incumbent Texan, or recalling Clinton’s efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland and the Middle East. And the Monica Lewinsky scandal seems as fresh on their tongues as the recent allegations involving England's favorite footballer, David Beckham.
“I’d like to know more about his background, and of course the Monica Lewinsky bit,” Jill Harris said as she scanned “My Life” for the former White House intern’s appearance on page 773.
“I’d like to know more about his relationship with his wife,” the 31-year-old administrator said as she glanced at the book next to “My Life”; Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir “Living History."
"If a woman can still be with her husband after all that, it’s quite interesting,” she said, adding that an excerpt from “My Life” published in a London daily newspaper had sparked her interest in the book.
Others showed little interest in the affair that got Clinton impeached by the House of Representatives.
“It’s his early life that interests me much more than the Lewinsky episode,” said David Paterson, 41, as he leafed through the autobiography in Borders bookstore on Oxford Street.
“It’s a shame he wasn’t in power when the 11th of September happened. He would’ve coped much better in the war on terror than the current president,” said Paterson, who works for a mining company.
‘This man’s my hero’
A day after the BBC aired a wide-ranging interview with the ex-president, there was great awareness of the Clinton tome.
“This man’s my hero,” said 31-year-old Oxford graduate student Michael Gonzalez, in Waterstones at Piccadilly Circus, the largest bookstore in the country.
“He’s a great politician. I’m doing a Ph.D. in law, and this man’s a political genius,” he said as he recalled Clinton’s responses in the BBC interview with admiration.
“You could ask him to come over and run this country,” he said, and with a laugh added, “But, then, your current president already is.”
Another Borders customer, John Wightman, said, “I didn’t like him when he was president — I thought he was a bit sly — but I warmed to him last night (while watching the BBC interview).”
“There seems to be more goodwill about Bill Clinton than George Bush,” said the 24-year-old, who raises funds for an environmental organization.
“Clinton articulated good ideas of what he wants America’s role in the world to be, and I prefer his view to George Bush’s,” Wightman said, explaining that although he supported the war in Iraq, he dislikes Bush’s trade and environmental policies.
“I don’t know if I’ll buy it, but it’s interesting,” he said as he mulled the book’s 20 pound sterling price tag.
From political, to tabloid, to psychological, Clinton’s book has a wide range of appeal.
“I think his personality is central to my interest. I want to find out the way he thinks and gets himself through difficult situations, personally and politically,” said Robert Connell, a 36-year-old civil servant from London.
Meantime, student Tosin Omokore stopped by the six-story bookstore to buy “My Life” for his parents. “I like (Clinton); I think he’s a smart guy,” he said.
Clinton vs. Harry Potter
Ali Zand, a 20-year-old computer science student originally from Iran, said he would like to read “My Life,” but doesn’t think he has enough free time right now.
While looking at the book he lamented the end of Clinton’s presidency. “Clinton’s communication with my country, Iran, was much stronger than it is with Bush,” he said.
“Bush only thinks of al-Qaida and Iraq, but he forgot Iran, Israel and Palestine,” he said.
“Communication should be very important for both countries (the United States and Iran), but neither are trying now.”
If published in Iran, he said the autobiography might sell well, “but it won’t be as popular as Harry Potter.”
While booksellers remain positive in Britain, they agree that Clinton’s tale can’t beat that of the boy wizard.
After all, Waterstones sold 1.7 million copies of the latest Harry Potter book in just the first week alone. Comparing the bookseller's projected sales for Clinton’s book: 26,000 the first month, with those of the current best-selling biography, “Made in Manchester,” about soccer player Beckham: 240,000 in the first month, the figures don’t look so good.
But, with 1.5 million copies already in print, distribution across Europe, and 150,000 editions translated into French, Clinton's publisher looks set to make a run at earning back the $10 million advance given the former president.