As an addendum to my recent post Declining author earnings, these words from Philip Roth provide a bit of background. They come from a 1974 New York Review of Books piece called “Imagining Jews”. Reacting to the furore which greeted the publication in 1969 of his fourth book, Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth wrote:

“That this shameful, solitary addiction was described in graphic detail, and with gusto, must have done much to attract to the book an audience that previously had shown little interest in my writing. Till Portnoy’s Complaint, no novel of mine had sold more than twenty-five thousand hardcover copies, and the hardcover edition of my first book of stories had sold just twelve thousand copies (and hadn’t yet gained nationwide attention by way of the Ali McGraw movie, which was released after the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint). For Portnoy’s Complaint, however, 420,000 people — or seven times as many as had purchased my previous three books combined — stepped up to the bookstore cash register with $6.95, plus tax, in hand, and half of them within the first ten weeks the book was on sale.”

Now I expect most people can name Roth’s first book, Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959), and his fourth, the controversial Portnoy’s Complaint. But nowadays who reads the books in between, his first two novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967)? I just did — I seem to be on a tribute troll through his complete opus, guided by a simultaneous reading of the Library of America volume of his essays, Why Write? — and I have to say I preferred these two lesser known novels to the two better known books.

I wonder how many young writers could now say with a straight face “no novel of mine had sold more than 25,000 hardcover copies”. 10,000 I’d suspect might be the largest number they’d dare to choose. We now seem to sell fewer copies of more titles. For publishers this isn’t such a bad deal, though of course there’s more money to be made off big sellers than lots of less successful books. But for the author it’s a bit of a squeeze. On the other hand, after ten years, isn’t 12,000 surprisingly low for a National Book Award winner, even if by a first-time author? Maybe nowadays that’s about it.