Why classic novels are still around.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 2 2003 5:03 PM

Cents and Sensibility

The surprising truth about sales of classic novels.

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This January, Penguin Group USA launched a half-million dollar marketing campaign to promote books that will probably never show up on a best-seller list. And Penguin doesn't even own exclusive rights to these particular titles. The books in question are classic novels—those pastel-colored books with scholarly introductions and period paintings on their covers. As it turns out, Aristotle and Charles Dickens and James Joyce don't just add a dash of class to a publishing house's list. They're serious money-makers.

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Take Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It sold 110,000 copies last year, according to Nielsen BookScan, which excludes academic sales from its calculations—which means these numbers aren't inflated by students who have no choice but to buy Austen. Compare it to figures for, say, The Runaway Jury by John Grisham, which was the No. 1 best seller in 1996: Last year, Grisham's novel sold 73,337 copies—almost 40,000 fewer than Pride and Prejudice.

Measured against a best seller in its first flush, sales of any classic book are piddling, of course (unless the classic has just been made into a blockbuster movie, in which case all bets are off). But the overall sales picture resembles the proverbial tortoise-and-hare scenario: As the race goes on, the classics win out. This may seem intuitive; but what's surprising is that often the race doesn't have to go on long at all.

Until recently, this had been impossible to know—or at least quantify. Because classics, particularly those that are more than 100 years old, are usually in the public domain, no single publishing house monitors sales of Wilkie Collins' 19th-century thrillers, the way Simon & Schusterdoes for Jackie Collins' romances. But in 2001, Nielsen BookScan, a sister company of the TV-ratings firm, began electronically tracking book sales at cash registers (following in the footsteps of SoundScan, which had done same thing for music). Before then, sales data was manually reported by bookstores. But stores tallied up figures for only a short list of books expected to be big sellers; it was considered too taxing to compile and send off the numbers for every title sold.

A book's success is usually measured by its place on the best-seller list. But the best-seller list measures sales transacted over a highly limited period of time, usually a week, sometimes a year. What the Nielson BookScan shows is that short spurts of high sales volumes don't provide an accurate picture of the overall equation: Take Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace—which runs some 1,400 pages and is not a book you associate with light bedtime reading. Last year, it sold 33,000 copies, according to BookScan. The Cardinal of theKremlin, another Russia-set novel, by spy-genre grandee Tom Clancy, and 1988's No. 1 best-selling book, just barely scraped ahead of War and Peace, with 35,000 copies sold. Its sales have been dropping, and it probably won't hit those figures next year, or ever again. In contrast, War and Peace will, by all evidence, continue at its steady pace—never rivaling the astronomical heights of the Clancy novel when it was first released, but never dipping low enough to go out of print, either.

It's not clear whether these new figures will have an effect on the business. In the music world, the introduction of comprehensive sales figures led to an increased promotion of Christian rock—until then, mainstream labels simply hadn't realized just how popular the genre was. The book industry has been slower to respond to the fount of data now available, in part because classics' popularity isn't self-evident. Those 110,000 copies of Pride and Prejudice, for example? To get that number, you have to look up BookScan's sales numbers on each edition of the book—the Penguin Classic, the Signet, the Bantam, the generic Barnes & Noble, etc.—and add them together. And that's no small task: There are more than 130 editions of Pride and Prejudice listed on Amazon.com.

Interestingly, even recent books that are considered literary don't compare to tried-and-true classics. At Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C., Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility sold 18 copies last year, while Snow Falling on Cedars, a literary novel that spent 87 weeks on the Publishers' Weekly best-seller list in 1995, sold only seven. So it's not just because bookstore owners want to edify us that they're as likely to stock Vanity Fair as Bonfire of the Vanities. "A best seller from 10 years ago, nobody wants to read—unless it's by someone like [Gabriel García] Márquez," said Donald Davis, a book-buyer for East Village Books in New York.

And that's why Penguin has seen fit to spend $500,000 promoting Sense and Sensibility, along with its 1,300 other Penguin Classics titles. It wants to corner the market. The paperback edition of The Nanny Diaries may be the rage right now, but authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus should look over their shoulders; another story about tending the children of the rich, a book by the name of Jane Eyre, is chugging along, slow and steady.

Adelle Waldman’s first novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., will be published in July. You can follow her on Twitter.

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