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The virtues of not selling out

Not selling books is a beloved subject for many writers.

H. Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff; Alizada Studios/Bitter/Adobe; Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As someone who launched a book on March 17, 2020 — right into the teeth of nationwide COVID shutdowns — I know a thing or two about not selling books. This happens to be one of my favorite subjects.

Not selling books equates me with Concord’s own Henry David Thoreau, the patron saint of unsold remainder copies. When his publisher returned 706 copies of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” out of a print run of one thousand, Thoreau wrote: “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor?”


I recently learned about T.E. Lawrence’s somewhat gamey account of his Royal Air Force training, written during the 1920s, titled “The Mint.” Lawrence directed that the book be published posthumously (he died in 1935), in part to spare the sensibilities of his fellow trainees.

But to protect Lawrence’s American copyright, publisher Doubleday, Doran & Co. printed a limited US edition of 50 copies in 1934, each volume priced at $500,000. As anticipated, there were no buyers, although you can pick one up now for around $16,000.

Not selling books is a beloved subject for many writers. The narrator of Meg Wolitzer’s 2004 novel, “The Wife,” remembers a youthful encounter with a novelist named Elaine Mozell, “a big and blowsy fair-haired woman.” Mozell is reading from her new novel, and tells her audience: “I know most of you haven’t read it, because it has only sold 1,503 copies despite so-called rave reviews. And most of those 1,503 copies were bought by my relatives. Who were paid handsomely by me.”

In her not very flattering book about Concord, “Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town,” author Sarah Payne Stuart evokes the cringe-inducing moment when a stranger learns that you are a writer. “Oh, do I know any of your books?” the well-intentioned, would-be reader asks. Stuart’s prepared reply: “No, no. Nobody reads my books.”


Some writers are quite wary of success. In his 1988 biography of Jean Stafford, my friend David Roberts reported that Stafford fled to a convent on Long Island rather than savor the anticipated good fortune of her warmly received 1944 novel “Boston Adventure.” “I don’t want to be around when this book comes out,” Stafford wrote to her publisher, Harcourt, Brace. “The success of this book is ludicrous and disgusting.”

Geoff Dyer’s early books — a biography of the writer John Berger; an essay on the cultural memory of the World War I Battle of the Somme — didn’t sell very well, surprising no one. “This is exactly how you do not go about establishing a successful literary career, or a brand,” Dyer said during a 2014 conference dedicated to his work. He felt no pressure to please an audience, he explained, “Because there was none!”

Mark Leyner’s books, such as “Et Tu, Babe” and “My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist,” sold well during the 1990s. More recently, in 2016, he parodied his own obsolescence in the novel “Gone With the Mind.” According to The Wall Street Journal, the book “portrays the author giving a reading at a shopping-mall food court that no one attends except his mother and two fast-food workers on their break.”


Leyner’s 2021 novel, “Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit,” “sends up his obsolescence again,” writes Journal critic Sam Sacks, who called “Last Orgy” “the weirdest and surely the most unsellable novel in an admirably weird career.”

“I found that comment enormously gratifying,” Leyner said in a phone call. “I’m proud of being consistently intransigent about how I’ve written the kinds of books that I want to write.”

The “unsellable” “Orgy” has sold a modest 610 copies since its release about a year ago, according to the Nielsen BookScan tracking service.

Dear Mark (if I may): Welcome to our not-so-exclusive club. — Warm regards, Messrs. Beam, Thoreau, et al.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.