Success in publishing often comes down to how one book measures up against another. This fall, two new titles practically beg for such assessment: The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World by Ken Alder (Free Press, Oct.) and Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy by Andro Linklater (Walker, Nov.) Both publishers are seeking to refashion their reputation or enhance it with a narrative nonfiction hit, even though distinguishing the two books may be a challenge. And looming over both titles is the larger question of how historical and scientific nonfiction is doing, seven years after Walker made its mark with Dava Sobel's Longitude and a proliferation of similar books followed.
The two books are set in the same period, immediately after the American Revolution and during the French Revolution. Yet their narratives rarely overlap. The Measure of All Things tells of two French astronomers who set out in opposite directions from Paris, to measure the section of the meridian between Dunkirk and Barcelona. Enduring war and privation, they attempt to determine the basis for the now-universal measurement known as the meter. Author Ken Alder adds an additional layer of drama by disclosing a 200-year-old secret he discovered while scrutinizing the men's mission logbooks: one of them covered up an error in his calculations. A starred PW review (Forecasts, July 1) called the book a "triple whammy: [an] elegant history of technology, an acute cultural chronicle and riveting intellectual adventure."
Meanwhile, in Measuring America, a fledgling United States, faced with a huge war debt, needs to measure and sell its greatest asset: land west of the Ohio river. Though Thomas Jefferson proposed a decimal measuring system backed by Washington, Adams, Madison and Monroe, in the end, the American Customary System, based on a 17th-century, 22-yard surveying tool called Gunter's Chain, laid the groundwork for this country. In its review (Forecasts, Sept. 9), PW noted that "Linklater's detailed chronicle of the physical development of early America demonstrates the ways that the desire to own property grew out of the individualism of the frontier and shaped the peculiarly American notion that the individual's right to own property is both a foundation and guarantee of democracy."
If the races to define the meter in France and to measure the U.S. can be seen as "gentlemen's rivalry," so, too, can the competition between the American publishers of these measuring books—although the ladies aren't taking a back seat.
For Free Press publisher Martha Levin, The Measure of All Things marks a new direction for the press, begun shortly before she took the helm 18 months ago. "We're trying to move into more 'trade-y' serious nonfiction," she explained, along the lines of Farrar, Straus & Giroux or Houghton Mifflin. In-house, the book is dubbed this season's "Martha's make" title, meaning that every department at the Free Press is expected to pull out the stops. Early blurbs for the book include a mix of scientific and literary endorsements from the likes of Allen Kurzweil, author of the novel The Grand Complication (which Levin published in her previous post at Hyperion), and Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams.
To grease the wheels for publication, Alder appeared at a critics' luncheon prior to BookExpo in May, and at a Simon & Schuster dinner during the show. "With everyone from Bob Woodward to Mary Higgins Clark in attendance, he really held his own," observed Levin. To get booksellers on board, the house created an elaborate galley mailing. "I started petitioning [BookSense program director] Carl Lennertz before the manuscript was even done," said Levin. Her efforts have paid off: The Measure of All Things is already a Sept./Oct. BookSense pick and part of Borders Original Voices Program. The house has shipped 42,000 copies, as Alder sets off on his 11-city tour.
Walker president and publisher George Gibson, known for his sharp eye for narrative nonfiction with commercial potential, also has a passionate and personal stake in his book. As with Longitude, he is taking a front seat in all aspects of publishing and marketing Measuring America, and even embarked on a personal promotional odyssey to booksellers this summer. "It reinforces the tingle I felt for that book," he explained. "It'll be thrilling if lightning could strike twice," he said, referring to his success with Longitude, "although we don't even like to talk in those terms." The house plans a substantial but cautious 20,000 first printing, and will be poised to reprint. "We'll advance about that many," said Gibson. "There will be enough to make it very visible in every store in the country."
Gibson first heard about the book two and a half years ago from a colleague at HarperCollins UK, which published its edition this summer. "I read [the proposal] on the plane back from London and called [Linklater's agent] Sloan Harris at ICM the next day." Walker later triumphed at a four-day auction. "I was by no means the high bidder," he said, speculating that a three-page memo Walker drafted on how to best publish Measuring America might have swayed the sale. "We made a case, and they went for it."
Although each publisher is working on solo coverage, the books will undoubtedly be reviewed together. "I do think the books can work very well side-by-side," said Gibson. To put Linklater front and center in the limelight, the house plans to let interest build through reviews before the holidays, and peak with an author tour in January. Glowing blurbs from David McCullough and Joseph Ellis will surely help sell Measuring America. Gibson said his staff is campaigning hard for a BookSense nomination for Nov./Dec. and that pub date promotions are already set at Borders and Barnes & Noble.
Adding to the insider buzz on these titles, the Free Press's new publicity manager and lead publicist for The Measure of All Things, is Cassie Dendurent, Walker's former marketing director. Gibson said he is enjoying the friendly competition with his former employee. "I take it as a compliment that, aside from her many assets, that they might have wanted her because of what she learned here," he said.
But can the micro-history/pop-science shelf sustain two books about measurement? "The category is awfully crowded, and far more books are failing than working, though the good ones still seem to develop legs and stay in there for a while," observed Sally Lindsay, a buyer for the wholesaler Koen in Moorestown, N.J. "And two books on a single subject often help each other," she added. Soren Schoff, manager at Canterbury Booksellers in Madison, Wis., agrees that the category remains strong, though he's "not always sure what is going to hit and what isn't," he told PW. "A book about the metric system sounds dry, but that wasn't the case with [other books on other unlikely subjects, like] Mauve [by Simon Garfield] and The Thread Across the Ocean [by John Steele Gordon]. I don't know if I'd want to see a movie about the metric system, but who knows? It could be good."
Only time will tell how these books measure up.