With Yale University Press on the bestseller list; electronic books the thing one moment, nixed the next; profits declining and a middlebrow scribbler masquerading as a writer for the ages, publishing — a business of exploring unfamiliar territory — is in really unfamiliar territory just now. How can anyone hope to read into these weird indicators for clues on what to do? But if you’re interested in selling a lot of books, reading the shifting sands of public opinion is exactly what’s needed. Still, the past may offer some pointers too.
When I look for the books that have done best for us, I think in terms of copies sold, money brought in, accolades amassed. At least at Four Walls Eight Windows, each category would probably have a different winner. But the one book that’s had the strongest positive overall effect on our little company has undoubtedly been Fermat’s Last Theorem, by Amir D. Aczel, which we published in 1995. We not only sold rights to the book in more than a dozen languages, paperback rights to Bantam Doubleday Dell, book club rights, and hardcovers in the tens of thousands, but this book also led to a raft of other math- and popular science-related titles for us.
Its genesis lay in the success of Walker’s Longitude by Dava Sobel. While other single-issue, short, historical works had certainly been published before, precious few were so rigorously technical; fewer were so well-designed; fewer still were promoted so successfully. I thought: We can do that. I’m fascinated by the sciences, no doubt because of my vast ignorance of them — all of them — and that gave extra energy to the idea. And it was immediately clear with Longitude’s publication that there was — and is — a hunger for bite-size popular scieOLneor history titles that focus on a tightly-defined issue.
Aczel had written a very successful tax guide for us, and wanted to do more, and his background was as a mathematician. Most important, he was eager to work together with us in crafting the book — so, the crucial elements were there: author and concept. That the topic had been the subject of intense scrutiny in the national media well before our publication was essential in persuading our sales force that a book on a fairly technical area — the discovery of the proof of a single mathematical theorem — by a then-relatively unknown author, could be of interest to a broad audience. The book was short — under 200 pages — elegantly typeset, and its trim was slightly smaller than the typical nonfiction hardcover: 5 x 7″. These elements helped it stand out and also lowered the intimidation factor for
reviewers and readers alike; if this was a book on math, it was a short book on math. Our goal was to create a “jewel-like” product.
To that end, the jacket went through several iterations, based on feedback from my editorial colleagues, the sales reps, the author, and even buyers in the field. (I have no problem changing a jacket design as long as I don’t absolutely hate the final result. The process is so subjective that the more people we can engage, the better.)
Our initial advance was respectable — 4,000 or so — and as we got print reviews, we kept selling out printings. (We had, of course, first sent out bound galleys, then finished copies, to a select list of about 200 reviewers nationwide.) By Christmas of 1995, we were at 12,000 copies and counting: the book kept selling out. And then, like obedient ducklings, the paperback sale and English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Dutch and Swedish right sales followed in short order. We liked the experience, and we’ve been working with Amir, and other science writers, ever since.
John Oakes is publisher of New York City-based Four Walls Eight Windows, which does about 35 books a year, both fiction and nonfiction. He co-founded it in 1987. He cut his teeth in publishing in the early 1980s with the legendary Barney Rosset at Grove Press, after a brief stint as a reporter for the Associated Press.