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Tuesday, September 1, 2015


In 1959, Norman Mailer published a collection of short pieces and fragments to which he gave the evocative title Advertisements for Myself.  Yesterday, as I was spending an idle hour and a half cleaning up and sorting out the Excel spreadsheet on which I record the sales of my books, that title popped into my head.  It captured, for me, a certain self-referential obsession that afflicts me and, I would imagine, some other authors.

I only saw Mailer in person once, at a 1960's chi-chi gathering of New York intellectuals called The Theater for Ideas, to which I had been invited by Robert Silvers, the founder and then editor of the NY Review of Books.  [I was introduced to Shapiro by Robert Heilbroner, who really was a friend of mine.]  The event was an evening devoted to "The Hidden Philosophy of Psychoanalysis," and the speakers included my Columbia colleague, the irrepressible Sidney Morgenbesser, and the great but quirky psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim.  [I tell the story  in my Autobiography.  It was quite a night.]  Mailer was there, along with Susan Sontag, Sidney Hook, the composer William Schuman, Sander Vanocur, and a variety of other leading lights of the New York cultural scene.  During the question period, Mailer, dressed in a three piece suit that made him look like a Bantam cock, rose and delivered an interminable and very spirited attack on his then-analyst [who was not present], while the audience, who were apparently familiar with Mailer's outbursts, looked on in amusement.

The thing is, those of us who have spent a lifetime as writers really care a good deal more than perhaps we ought about just how many people have bought our books [which we take as a measure, however imprecise, of how many have actually read them].  My first book appeared in 1963, and though it did not actually earn any money for several years [those were Harvard University Press's terms, and who was I to argue!], it did sell some copies in the tiny world of Kant scholars who were my target audience.  Early on, I set up a filing system for my annual and semi-annual royalty reports, and some time after Excel was created in the mid-80's, I transferred it all to that program, the great virtue of which of course is that one can perform arithmetic operations on the entries.  Fifty-two years later, I am still entering the sales figures from each royalty report as it arrives  Yesterday, having nothing better to do, I cleaned things up on the spreadsheet and did some summations and conversions, just to see how I had done over a lifetime.

Twenty-one of my books have actually been published in hard or soft covers [another ten or a dozen exist only in electronic form.]   A number of my books have been translated into a variety of languages.  It is always difficult to keep track of these things, and one never gets sales reports from foreign editions [at least I never do -- I imagine J. K. Rowling does], but as near as I can tell, my books have appeared in German, Swedish, Italian, Japanese, French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Norwegian, Korean, Croatian, Malaysian, Chinese, Hungarian, and Greek.

If my records are correct, a total of 856,131 copies of my various books have been sold in their American editions.  That is not bad for a philosopher.  Considering the subject matter, the audience is probably pretty classy.  I don't know any one famous who has read one of my books, but from time to time I hear from young people in Brazil or Croatia or Spain or Australia or India who have found something of interest in one of them, and that pleases me a very great deal indeed.  By comparison, in fifty-three years of teaching, I imagine no more than six or seven thousand students passed through my classes, despite all the moonlighting and summer teaching I did.  When I find myself wondering What's it all About? [to quote the theme song from the great 1966 Michael Caine movie], it is comforting to remind myself that these bottles I toss into the sea filled with my notes to the world have indeed washed up on a number of shores.

Having completed my tabulation, it occurred to me [as it well might occur to you] to wonder how much money all these book sales have amounted to.  That is a tricky question because of the steady inflation of the past half century, so I had first to sum the royalties for each year and then, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Calculator, convert them all to 2015 dollars.

I was rather startled to discover that the grand total, as of today, is $2,528,929. 

Is this fascination on my part with the sales of my books a debased and shameful interest?  No more so than the typical one year old's fascination with its own feces, which it very much resembles. 

Tomorrow, I shall return to the serious and elevated consideration of the contest for the American presidency.


Chris said...

If you've made approximately $2,000,000 that makes me wonder what sort of compensation Peter Singer and/or Noam Chomsky are getting. Perhaps being a philosopher is a lucrative field after all.....

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is only fair to point out that much of that comes from a very successful textbook now in it eleventh edition. But I think we can assume that Noam has made a good deal from his books, which must exist in all manner of languages.

Carl said...

"Shapiro" should be Silvers.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Whoops, sorry. Age, you know.
I will edit it.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

Keep in mind that your calculations do not include copies of your books sold (and re-sold) in used bookstores and from online independent sellers. Although there is probably no way to effectively track such sales, it does indicate that your books are no doubt reaching more readers than the official sales records reflect.

-- Jim

Chris said...

That's true. I know several people who purchased used copies on in Defense of Anarchism.