Wednesday, July 29, 2009

David Versus Goliath

Back in 2006, after the Frankfurt Book Fair, HarperCollins made a $1 million bet on Jonathan Littell's French bestseller, Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones). It was an ill-advised bet. Despite the significant buzz surrounding the March 1st publication of The Kindly Ones in the U.S., Nielsen BookScan reports the book has sold only 17,000 copies. Even allowing for the fact that Nielsen BookScan counts only about 70% of a book’s sales, 17,000 is a paltry number compared to the book’s first printing of 150,000 copies. As Rachel Deahl comments in an article at Publishers Weekly, “a vitriolic first-person account of a fictional SS officer's life, coming in at just under 1,000 pages” is “an incredibly tough sell in America.”

On the same day The Kindly Ones was published with great fanfare, Melville House quietly published Every Man Dies Alone, another novel connected to the Third Reich, this one by deceased author Hans Fallada. Unlike The Kindly Ones, however, Melville House acquired Fallada’s novel for “a modest sum.” Also unlike The Kindly Ones, Every Man Dies Alone has gone on to become a “surprise hit” with 40,000 copies circulating.


Lit and Life said...

$1 million for a translation in the U.S.? Does seem like someone wasn't thinking too clearly on the day that deal was made.

Zibilee said...

I hadn't heard of either of these books, but I have to admit, they both look kind of interesting, albeit in different ways.

An Anonymous Child said...

Proof indeed that giant advances are utterly pointless in publishing. Quite frankly, "Every Man Dies Alone" always seemed far more interesting and appealing. I hope this doesn't discourage publishers from taking on foreign literature but I do hope it steers them away from the million dollar advances region.