Jonathan Burnham's acquisition of Jonathan Littell's French bestseller, Les Bienveillantes, after 2006's Frankfurt Book Fair is almost the stuff of publishing legend. Burnham plunked down a rumored $1 million for a book that, despite being the buzzed-about novel of the German show and a European bestseller, seemed an incredibly tough sell in America. Industry insiders ruminated loudly, and repeatedly, about who the reader was for Littell's book—a vitriolic first-person account of a fictional SS officer's life, coming in at just under 1,000 pages.
The naysayers, in this case, were right. HarperCollins published The Kindly Ones (its American title) on March 1 with an announced first printing of 150,000 copies; according to Nielsen BookScan (which captures approximately 70% of sales) the book has sold just 17,000 copies to date. Ironically, another novel set during Hitler's reign and published on the same day as The Kindly Ones is emerging as a surprise hit. If you believe that readers are only interested in one Holocaust novel per season—as some booksellers do—Melville House's Every Man Dies Alone is that book.
Melville House publisher/founder Dennis Johnson acquired the novel, by the now-deceased Hans Fallada, in the fall and, although he wouldn't talk money, said it was for a modest sum. (The book was originally published in Germany in 1947, and Johnson said the rights holders “were glad to hear from us and gave a generous deal.”) The book is a fictionalized account of an actual German couple who left notes throughout Germany urging citizens to defy the Third Reich, and Johnson always had high hopes for the book; he told PW in October he felt it could be a hit in the vein of Suite Française.
Nonetheless, there was the sticking point of The Kindly Ones. Because the translation of Littell's book was held up, the titles coincidentally came out on the same day. Only then did Johnson fear that the big Harper novel might overshadow, and possibly kill, the little one. “We believe some retailers weren't quick to stock us because of [The Kindly Ones],” Johnson said. But what seemed like terrible timing has turned into a David and Goliath publishing tale.
Where The Kindly Ones got bad press, Every Man Dies Alone shone. Most notably was the mismatched coverage in the daily New YorkTimes—Michiko Kakutani, in a scathing February 23 review of Littell's novel, called the book “willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent,” while a glowing NYTBR review of Fallada's novel opened by citing its publication as “a signal literary event of 2009.”
Although Every Man Dies Alone has sold modestly to date, the numbers are strong for Melville House. Johnson, who did an initial print run of 15,000 is now up to his fourth printing with 40,000 copies circulating. According to BookScan, the title's sold 11,000 copies, and Johnson, who said he's been getting tremendous support from the indies and now the chains, is expecting a long, slow burn.
Johnson is quick to point out that there's no way of knowing whether Every Man Dies Alone had any effect on The Kindly Ones, but he does think Fallada's novel, despite its grim title, offers something more palatable for readers and booksellers. While he admitted he hadn't read Littell's novel—in which, aside from the succession of grim depictions of Jews being killed, the narrator details everything from his psychosexual fantasies about his sister to his bowel movements—Johnson assumes Every Man Dies Alone might be more “wholesome” and make people less “squeamish.”