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Anatomy of a Bestseller

by Eric Halpern

No dictionary will tell you with statistical precision what counts as a bestseller nor, for obvious reasons, what qualities bestsellers share apart from salability. Mass market bestsellers --by the likes of John Grisham and Michael Crichton, whose paperbacks you'll find in drug and grocery stores, in airports, at the Price Club--may sell more than a million copies. Trade bestsellers--Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes is one, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain is another--from the better commercial publishers sell in the six-figure range. While some university press books achieve trade-bestseller sales, most people in the business would say that a university press book enters bestsellerdom when it tops 10,000 copies, roughly ten times what the "average" academic book may be expected to sell.

By this benchmark the Penn Press has over the past couple of decades published a dozen or so bestsellers.

Notable among these are two books by longtime members of the Penn faculty: Depression, by Aaron Beck, and Witchcraft in Europe, by Alan Kors and Edward Peters. These two books differ radically in kind and intended readership. The former is a pioneering work in its field that nonetheless sells steadily in retail bookstores. The latter is a source book of primary documents that enjoys extensive course-connected use.

Last fall the Penn Press published a book that had the distinction of reaching bestseller status within a few weeks of its publication.

With 15,000 copies in print three months after first publication, James O'Gorman's ABC of Architecture offers in a mere 35,000 words (120 printed pages) an introduction to the field of architecture--to the history, structure, and criticism of the built environment. It can in such brief compass, of course, do no more than provide a "slender toehold" (the author's words) on a discipline as aesthetically and technically challenging as any. That the book is a "model of brevity and clarity" and "may be the best-written work on the subject in English for lay people," to quote the New York Times review, testifies to the author's judicious solution to the tricky pedagogical and literary problem that confronts anyone who attempts to reach readers beyond those who are professionally interested: how much clarity can you achieve without overdiluting subject matter? The accessibility of O'Gorman's text, its editorial and stylistic simplicity in other words, is deceptive. Though the book reads as though it might have been written at a single sitting, in fact it is the product of more than three decades of teaching undergraduates in the liberal arts. The book's author is a dedicated teacher; the book itself is educational in intent. The best books for students often reach out beyond the classroom.

O'Gorman has written books that are technical, specialized, addressed to colleagues or aspiring colleagues and begin with the assumption that readers will automatically want to know what he has to say. These are the kinds of books--scholarly monographs--that have traditionally been the stock in trade of university presses, but that university presses nowadays complain often remain too long in stock and in which there is too little trade. At this university press we have no thought of abandoning scholarly monographs. Indeed, we accept that publication of scholarly monographs is one of our chief reasons for being, inasmuch as the Penn Press is the publishing arm of a research institution. But more than a research institution, Penn is an educational institution, and a mission increasingly central here is teaching. The publication of books that communicate to students and general readers, that share knowledge and insight with an audience not composed for the most part of specialists, is likewise increasingly central to the mission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.

In those academic subjects we have targeted for concentrated list development, the Press's editors are methodically seeking out authors who have already underway works of the sort just described. We are also working closely with scholars whose manuscripts might be broadened with the help of additional editorial advice and counsel, and we are commissioning new books from scholars able and willing to rise to the challenge of writing for a wider audience. As the Press's humanities editor puts it in connection with one new editorial initiative in his area of responsibility, "the idea is not to produce books that would be conventional, research-driven, academically correct works so much as to give authors whom we find interesting a platform from which to write energetically and idiosyncratically." And we are applying this newly entrepreneurial approach to list-building to all the areas in which we are active, or aim to be active, as a publisher.

For our overall editorial strategy is to publish programmatically in selected fields and, within those selected fields, to publish for the full spectrum of readers: for professionals and other specialists, for students, and for serious general readers. We do this in part so that we can continue to publish research-level books. More important is our determination to make a meaningful contribution to the educational mission of the University and to enhance the Press's own--and by extension, the University's--reputation. Although we are not interested in publishing bestsellers only (as if that were possible!), we are single-minded in our determination to see that Penn Press books find their way in to the hands of as many readers as feasibly possible. The objective is to publish books for the range of people who will read our books and use them, who will find in them enjoyment as well as enlightenment.

The success of books like O'Gorman's suggests that our editorial strategies are paying off. Long known as a publisher of scholarly books of impeccable quality, authors are beginning to view us also as a credible publisher of books for larger audiences. Our hope is that the Penn faculty, in particular, will consider us regularly as a publisher of choice for their books of both sorts.

Eric Halpern is director of the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, February 24, 1998, Volume 44, Number 23