Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Books by the Numbers

In the essay "The Malice of Witlings", collected in The Leafless American, Edward Dahlberg writes
To come closer to our times ten copies of Thus Spake Zarathustra and seventeen of Stendhal's De l'Amour were sold when they first issued.
Since the second paragraph above that ends
Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack is our meal just as much as lentils and potatoes.
Dahlberg might have remarked that A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was no commercial success on its publication in 1849. In an entry of October 28, 1853, Thoreau records getting back
706 copies of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have ever since been paying for, and have not quite paid yet.... Of the remaining two hundred and ninety odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold.
In "Writers and Money", collected in The Hall of Uselessness, Simon Leys quotes Jacques Chardonne and Chardonne's sometime boss:
His old boss, who was a notorious gambler, formulated an original philosophy of the trade: "on every book you publish, you are bound to lose money; therefore, the secret of a good publisher is to publish as few books as possible--ideally, none at all." From his own experiences, Chardonne himself concluded: "Any truly good book will always find 3,000 readers, no more, no less..."
which figure Leys says "does not seem to have varied significantly over the last 400 years.

In "The Traffic in Words", a review of Gilbert Sorrentino's novel Mulligan Stew, collected in Historical Fictions, Hugh Kenner writes
Apart from [the Joyces, Eliot, Becketts], avant-garde writing is almost exactly as perishable as is Reading Public writing, from which it differs chiefly in soliciting the approval of a smaller group, ranging in size from a group of one, the writer, up to a group of perhaps 1,100, say five per million of the U.S. population. (I derive this figure from the normal circulation of literary quarterlies, the typical press runs of small houses like Jargon and Black Sparrow, the confidences of itinerant publisher-editors, and the observation of the moss on the north sides of trees.)
How many such partially overlapping groups of up to 1,100 there may be is anybody's guess....

1 comment:

  1. I knew the Thoreau numbers but not the rest--interesting.

    Of course, now the Big 5 publishers try hard to choose what will do well and put their money and muscle behind the lead books. Marketers rule, and editors must wriggle past them these days in order to accept a book.