May 2, 2013

How much does a Pulitzer affect book sales?


Sold more than 40 copies? All right!

Husna Haq of The Christian Science Monitor tracked sales for the 2013 winners just two weeks after the Pulitzer Prize was announced. The result? Money has not fallen from the sky. Well, not yet.

The second week tends to yield high sales for Pulitzer Prize winners, which is why I assume The Christian Science Monitor is tracking these numbers so soon. The real question is how many months the books can keep up the hype, enthusiasm, and good press that arrives with the award. Historically, the prize’s influence on sales is less a wildfire than a slow burn.

The 2013 prize already great news for fiction, selling more than two thousand more copies of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son after the announcement. (Up quite a bit from the previous year, considering that zero copies were sold after no fiction prize was awarded in 2012.)

And it’s better news for one title that had already been remaindered: Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove is now back in print at HarperCollins after winning for nonfiction.

As for the others:

Embers of War by Fredrik Logevall, saw 2013 sales increase from 40 (yes, you read that right) copies before the announcement to 353 after it, according to Nielsen BookScan and Publishers Weekly.

Sales of Tom Reiss’s The Black Count inched up from 135 to 501 copies.

Sharon Old’s Stag’s Leap saw sales increase from 51 copies to 492.

And Fiction winner The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, saw sales increase from 413 copies to 2,477 after the award announcement.

Sales of 353, 492, 501? We’d hardly call that a windfall.

These sales aren’t yielding instant fortune for the authors and publishers. But if you look at it a different way, those numbers are pretty good. Logevall has sold almost nine times as many copies as he had before the prize, and that’s a lot for fourteen short days.

The boost in fiction sales tends to last for five to eleven months. After winning the prize in 2011, sales for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad tripled, selling an average of 10,000 copies until dropping to an average of 5,000 in mid September, reports Gabe Habash in PW. (Note that these numbers do not include ebook sales.) The book has sold about 376,000 combined hardcover and trade paperback copies in Bookscan.

The greatest difference in sales came to Paul Harding’s Tinkers in 2010. In the week before the announcement, 40 copies were sold. The week of the prize: 1,042 copies. Week two sales jumped to 6,131! Weekly sales stretched to an average 5,000 copies for ten months. To date, Bookscan says it has sold 400,000 paperback copies.

Let’s give booksellers and librarians a little time to catch up on this new reading list and chat about it with interested readers. Publishers may need a few more days to ship those fancy new stickers. Allow book clubs a couple of months to consider the winners for their next meetings. This isn’t a scratch-off ticket: it’s a literary award.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.