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The Interpretation of Lackluster Sales

Not surprisingly, yesterday’s WSJ piece was talked about in publishing circles, and some of that chatter reached GalleyCat‘s ears. One high-ranking publishing insider was particularly fascinated as he’s been paying close attention not just to Jed Rubenfeld‘s debut, but those by Marisha Pessl, Michael Cox & Diane Setterfield. “All four books were bought for a lot of money, had a fortune spent on them in many and various ways by smart publishers — and yet, two succeeded and two failed.”

Why did this happen? “I think Holt did the right things and pushed the right buttons,” he continued. “I think you’re right that TALE is more a women’s book, so that helped, and of course the B&N Recommends push was a huge help. But there was room for both books on the Times list — they weren’t mutually exclusive, and it was early enough in the fall that most of the gigantic crush of big brand names hadn’t come out yet, so there was room.

“But here’s the thing, in my view (and I’m not saying I’m absolutely right). Speaking strictly as a mystery/thriller fan, a consumer, I thought INTERPRETATION was…okay. I didn’t go running around telling people they should read it. And I’ve heard that from other quarters. The point of sending out thousands of galleys is, quite rightly, to get the word of mouth going, and if the word of mouth is lukewarm, then you’re going to have problems. (By contrast, though I didn’t find TALE to be the greatest book ever, I enjoyed it and I did recommend it to those I thought would like it).” Our high-ranking PI also points out that the “great word of mouth” extended towards Pessl’s book, but less towards Cox.

The verdict? “Sometimes it just comes back to the book.”


Having the insider’s ear, I asked what his feeling was on Holt’s future buying prospects. Would they shy away from fiction, wanting to restrict themselves to the so-called sure bets of non-fiction? “My hunch is that Holt will be more careful,” he replied. “They certainly won’t shut the doors — we’ve all had big gambles that tanked, after all, and you’ve got to keep going — but they’ll keep it in the back of their minds, right enough. Especially since they’re a smaller house, and that big a gamble can be pretty painful if it doesn’t pay off.”

And even though Holt might be licking its wounds, there’s still the Noam Chomsky book to add some needed salve. But Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash points out a delicious irony: “[HEGEMONY OR SURVIVAL] was the only one of Chomsky’s many, many books published by a corporate publisher. Most of the rest are either published by South End or Seven Stories, and Chavez picked the one that will make moolah for Holtzbrinck, rather than for the left indie publishers…”*

*Ron points out that Holtzbrinck has actually published three books by Chomsky, including Imperial Ambitions and Failed States, as part of its American Empire Project line.

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