Friday, June 8, 2012

Millions and Millions Sold

Ray Bradbury died on Monday and his legacy is justly secure. Celebrations of his life and works are everywhere, and I find myself wanting to fill in some gaps in my reading list. Why have I never read “The Martian Chronicles?” Fortunately, all of Bradbury’s works are readily available and will remain so. Which brings up an interesting point of contrast.

The New York Times obituary, Ray Bradbury, Master of Science Fiction, Dies at 91, includes this summary statistic of Bradbury’s work:
“More than eight million copies of his books have been sold in 36 languages.”
and life:
“His writing career stretched across 70 years, to the last weeks of his life.”
Impressive, but then I was looking over Nielsen BookScan’s 100 best sellers and noticed that the top three titles for the week belong to E. L. James and the “Fifty Shades” trilogy. Not too surprising, but these three books, first released in the U.S. in April, have already sold over five million copies—that’s just Nielson’s retail sales numbers and just in the U.S. and Canada, and it’s less than three months and the blockbuster movies aren’t even close to release!

I admit, it’s not a meaningful comparison, and yet it doesn’t feel quite right. It doesn’t seem fair or just, and I want to stand up and rail against ignorance, or something, but that would be stupid, wouldn't it? I haven’t read the shaded gray books, so who am I to judge? I must calm down, be realistic, put aside my passionate idealism and tell myself that raw book sales numbers have nothing to do with fairness or justice. I’m trying to see this imbalance in a different, more businesslike light.

In fact, E. L. James success is everyone’s success, which is a less personal and more “macro” view of things. Think how many people are making money because E. L. James’s books, no matter what we may think of them, have become a publishing phenomenon. We’ve got trickle-down success to all the editors, marketing and PR people, printers, booksellers, and even the truckers and warehousers for so many tons of printed paper. Then there’s the trickle up success, because Vintage Books, which was started by Knopf, which was owned by Random House, is now owned by Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate, which makes this an international success story. The entire publishing ecosystem is grateful to E. L. James.

On the other hand, lots of people benefitted from Ray Bradbury’s monetary success, as well, however diffused by time and scale in comparison. But more importantly, Bradbury’s success exceeds any measure of financial reward, and I need to remind myself of the overriding importance of such realities. Again, from The New York Times:
“By many estimations Mr. Bradbury was the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream. His name would appear near the top of any list of major science fiction writers of the 20th century, beside those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and the Polish author Stanislaw Lem. His books are still being taught in schools, where many a reader has been introduced to them half a century after they first appeared. Many readers have said Mr. Bradbury’s stories fired their own imaginations.”
We shall read Bradbury and watch the movies of his books. I will read his stories aloud to Katharine as we lie in bed at night, and we will talk about Bradbury with our friends and families because they will and have read him, too. I’m not too interested in reading the Fifty Shades books, but I really don’t mind if you purchase and read them. Please tell me what you think of them and why you think they’re so popular!

No comments: