July 1, 2002
By Brad Newsham
Both Travelers' Tales and I had some pretty lofty expectations back in September 2000, when they first published "Take Me With You" in the States, in hardback. And when the media became excited by Tony's and my coast-to-coast taxicab trip, well, we thought we might actually achieve the 50,000-60,000 in sales that we had dreamed about. "All Things Considered," the Canadian Broadcasting Association, the BBC, the Voice of America, the front page of the Christian Science Monitor, the "CBS Early Show" for five whole nationwide minutes...the list goes on. But in the end, all that intense interest generated only about 9,000 sales, and given the "returns" aspect of the publishing industry (bookstores return unsold copies after a period of time and receive a full refund from the publisher) we knew that the figure would wind up somewhat lower than that. Perhaps 8,000. Nice, respectable, but the book did not get quite the audience we had hoped for. The whole experience of Tony's visit was priceless, but the sales were decidely underwhelming for all concerned.
In 2001, Ballantine bought the American paperback rights (my share: $7,500), which was very nice, and that edition was published this past February, 2002, with an afterword that I wrote about Tony's trip. Three weeks ago, in June, while I was in New York (Sarah and I were tagging along on a business trip of Rhonda's), I dropped in on Mr. Tracy Brown, who two decades ago drove a San Francisco Yellow Cab for a spell, and who is now a senior editor - my editor - at Ballantine.
After we shared cab stories and kid stories, we discussed a book proposal that my agent and I currently have circulating. We're looking for a publishing contract for an expanded account of Tony's amazing trip to America, marbled with the many lessons I learned from it, plus, at book's end, a plan I have to save the world. (Book contract or none, I intend to have my plan ready to share publicly by September 11, when I have an event scheduled at the Monticello Inn in San Francisco... but I'll post an update about that later...) Tracy was encouraging, and we spent a great mirthful hour in his corner office overlooking Times Square, but we have no deal.
After the deflation of Travelers' Tales hardback sales, I honestly have not paid any attention at all to how many copies Ballantine's paperback edition has been selling. If the book was flying out of bookstores, surely Tracy would know, and surely he would have called me long ago, but there's been no such call since the book came out. And now, after an hour, as Tracy was walking me to the door, I asked, "Hey, how's the book doing?" He said he really didn't know, and that Ballantine's computer was down just now, but he would look it up later and email the numbers to me. (I still haven't heard, so I know the numbers are nothing to email home about.)
Back in San Francisco, I received a call from my friends at Travelers' Tales, telling me that there are some books waiting for me in the office. On June 3 of this year, my book was published in paperback in England by Bantam, which, if I have my publishing genealogy correct, is a division of Transworld, which is a division of Random House UK, which is a division of the German media conglomerate Bertlesman. This is another nice development - I'm always agreeable to receiving a little money (my share of the sale of the British rights was just under $2,000), and it's great fun to see the book have an extended life - but I certainly haven't had any great expectations from it.
Anyway, Bantam had shipped ten copies of the British version to me care of the Travelers' Tales office, and now they were there waiting for me. A couple of days later, while running a host of errands across the Bay, I dropped by the office. It was good to see everyone. A little poignant, however. Travelers' Tales has recently moved down the hall from the old office, to an office half as large. They don't need the space so badly since they laid off half the staff after September 11, when the travel book industry was virtually cut in half. But it's always good for me to stop by the office - we're all pals there.
Larry Habegger, the executive editor (and, according to newspapers in Minneapolis, the best high school shortstop ever to play in the Twin Cities), gave me a big hug and then said, "Hey, I know you're in a hurry - come into the back - I've got something I need to ask you."
He told me that it was time for royalty checks to be issued, and I still had some money coming to me. But the problem was, returns of "Take Me With You" had been so heavy that he'd been wondering what to do. If the returns continued, I would wind up owing Travelers' Tales money. (Standard practice in the publishing industry is to withhold payment of some of an author's royalties to cover the inevitable returns.)
I asked what exactly were the numbers.
Larry called Susan Brady from the Numbers Department, and she brought in a few pages that listed sales and returns by month. During the year 2001, when Tony and I were blazing our way across America, across airwaves, across front pages, the very peak time when both Travelers' Tales and I figured we'd be doing our most booming business, we shipped a modest 3,200 copies in response to bookstore orders. And then the heartbreaker...we received returns of 2,500 copies. We had had net sales of 700 copies. For the year. We went down the list month by month - 350 copies returned in this month, 210 in that one, 150 here, 425 there...it was staggering, sobering. The 8,000-9,000 we'd once considered our "sold" total, was now in the 6,000-7,000 range. How in the world does a publisher make a penny?
So as we're looking at these numbers, and my stomach is feeling oh, so queasy, I suddenly start snorting laughter. I said, "Oh, I wished I had videotaped these last five minutes! Every aspiring writer should see that tape. The hopes and dreams... We all set out in this cocoon of innocence: We will inspire, we will promote the highest ideals, we will lead, we will earn livings, good livings..."
Larry and Susan were laughing now, too... We've had many prior discussions about the sad realities of publishing, and they know that I have semi-serious plans to teach a course for would-be writers, entitled: Stop Writing Now!
"...and it comes down to this. Here they are in the windowless back room in the incredible shrinking office, the famous author and his loyal publishers, hunched over these mind-numbing figures, going, 'Well, who's going to owe who money here?'"
It was a hysterical moment. Really.
Then last Wednesday, completely out of the blue, from Sadie, my British editor at Transworld, I receive the following email, the first news I've had of the British version since I had a peek at the beautiful cover:
Brad - we've today put another 5,000 copy reprint in hand. So far we have printed and sold 13,374 so with this additional reprint you'll be over 18,000 copies printed in the first month of publication.
You're continuing to do well at WH Smith's, rating the 21st highest selling Transworld title for this week, and are to be included in a special adventure travel summer promotion they're running with 20 British publishers, along with three other selected Transworld authors, including Bill Bryson.
TMWY was no. 46 in BookTrack's list of the top 50 non-fiction paperback titles in the whole of the UK for this week. (BookTrack is the UK book industry's sales measurement service. It collects total transactional data at the point of sale directly from tills and despatch systems of all the major book retailers.)
PS my well-travelled sister's boyfriend and our editorial assistant are reading TMWY and wanted to let you know how much they're enjoying it.
PS - Haven't heard from Tony for nearly two months, but I intend to try to reach him by phone this weekend, or perhaps next. I'll keep you posted. And don't forget - September 11. Monticello Inn.