No, But I Bought the Book

  • In its annual ritual, Publishers Weekly has tallied up the book figures for the year past, and the numbers make it look like a very good vintage. Sales in the U.S. jumped 11%, to $14.7 billion. Four novels sold more than 1 million ; copies each, and 63 passed the 100,000-copy plateau, far eclipsing the old record of 52 in 1987. But amid all this dusty bookkeeping lurks some astonishing information.

    Item: Salman Rushdie's death-defying novel, The Satanic Verses, sold 746,949 copies, putting this brilliant, difficult author near the neighborhood of Tom Clancy, Stephen King and Danielle Steel.

    Item: Umberto Eco's gnomic, daunting Foucault's Pendulum, published in the fall, got off to a fast start with 278,161 sales.

    Item: A Brief History of Time, by the British physicist Stephen Hawking, which appeared in 1988, added 410,000 sales last year to pass 1 million overall.

    At first glance, such figures make the heart leap at this sudden elevation of popular taste. Unfortunately, no one has yet revealed how many copies of Rushdie, Eco or Hawking were actually read by those who bought them. Surveys of reading habits appear now and then; they must be discounted absolutely. Pollsters are not equipped with rubber truncheons to beat the truth out of interviewees. And where this subject is concerned, people lie. They will go on Donahue or Geraldo and confess, beaming, to every sin against God and man -- except the act of not having really read the latest much toted and touted tome they've been going around praising.

    An informal test was staged a few years ago by Michael Kinsley, then editor of the New Republic, who had notes slipped deep into dozens of copies of three much discussed works that were selling well in Washington bookstores; anyone who found the notes (which presumably included anyone who read the books) was instructed to call for a $5 reward. After five months, no one had. "These books don't exist to be read," Kinsley later wrote. "They exist to be gazed at, browsed through, talked about." The Kinsley experiment's small sampling could lead to the conclusion, probably erroneous, that no books are actually read. Some surely are. But which ones and by how many?

    Fortunately, some common sense and simple math can produce rough answers. People buy a book for many reasons: either they want to read it, think they ought to read it, or want to impress people by making them think they have read it. But it is a truth universally acknowledged that folks are motivated by desire and ease, rather than self-improvement or showiness, when it comes to the private act of actually turning the pages. Hence, a formula that indicates what percentage of books sold are really read. The Fully Read Index , (FRI) equals the Author Comfort Index (ACI) times the Simple Prose Coefficient (SPC).

    The Author Comfort Index (ranging from 10 to 1) measures the amount of egalitarianism generated by writers in their books. King, Clancy and Steel achieve highest scores in this category, and Robert Fulghum ranks near the top with a 9.7. They have mastered the trick of making their readers feel not only their equal but frequently their superior. On the other hand, Rushdie and Hawking are manifestly forbidding, the smartest guys in the class. Give them both 1s.

    The Simple Prose Coefficient is, well, simple. A score of 9.9 indicates that a casual reader in an enclosed space where jet engines are being tested at 30- second intervals will catch virtually every nuance. (A score of 10 is impossible, reserved for the realm of television game shows or the news columns of USA Today.)

    Hawking, with an ACI of 1 and an SPC of 3, gets an FRI of 3; of every 100 people who bought A Brief History of Time, three finished it. Rushdie (ACI 1 X SPC 2) weighs in at a solid 2%. In the middle range, John le Carre has a fairly high ACI (8), thanks to his 25 years of best-sellerdom, along with a demanding style ameliorated somewhat by the propulsions of suspense (SPC 6). His FRI of 48% means that of the 530,280 copies of The Russia House sold, 254,534.4 consumers finished it.

    These results are subject to various interpretations. On the one hand, when they can find a respite from the demands and diversions of contemporary life, more people are reading more pap than ever before. On the other, Hawking's FRI rating of 3% amounts to a readership of some 30,000 for A Brief History of Time. Is that number shamefully low or encouragingly high? That probably depends on how it is read.


    CREDIT: TIME Chart by Joe Lertola

    Source: U.S. hard-cover sales from Publishers Weekly; Read-o-meter estimates by Paul Gray. CAPTION: READ-O-METER