Succeeding with Bite-Size Science

January 2002
by John G.H. Oakes

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With Yale University Press on the bestseller list; electronic books the thing one moment, nixed the next; profits declining and a middlebrow scribbler masquerading as a writer for the ages, publishing — a business of exploring unfamiliar territory — is in really unfamiliar territory just now. How can anyone hope to read into these weird indicators for clues on what to do? But if you’re interested in selling a lot of books, reading the shifting sands of public opinion is exactly what’s needed. Still, the past may offer some pointers too.

When I look for the books that have done best for us, I think in terms of copies sold, money brought in, accolades amassed. At least at Four Walls Eight Windows, each category would probably have a different winner. But the one book that’s had the strongest positive overall effect on our little company has undoubtedly been Fermat’s Last Theorem, by Amir D. Aczel, which we published in 1995. We not only sold rights to the book in more than a dozen languages, paperback rights to Bantam Doubleday Dell, book club rights, and hardcovers in the tens of thousands, but this book also led to a raft of other math- and popular science-related titles for us.

Its genesis lay in the success of Walker’s Longitude by Dava Sobel. While other single-issue, short, historical works had certainly been published before, precious few were so rigorously technical; fewer were so well-designed; fewer still were promoted so successfully. I thought: We…IBPA Members – Click here to view the full article (login required).

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