Seven months after a book's hardcover publication, most publishers are eyeing returns, and looking ahead to the paperback. That's not the case with Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science. But then there's nothing typical about this self-published book, which was released last May with a 50,000 first printing. In its first week on sale, the 1,179-page book, which retails for $44.95, hit #1 on Amazon.com. Within a month, it reached #16 on the New York Times extended bestseller list, though it was unclear whether the book would be able to sustain its momentum (Book News, June 24, 2002).
Three more printings and 150,000 additional copies later, the answer is "yes" and it's doubtful that Wolfram harbors any regrets about the publication route he chose.
Having scheduled 30 appearances for Wolfram last year, ranging from a speech at NASA to campus events, freelance publicist John Ekizian has nearly a dozen more talks lined up, including ones at the prestigious 92nd Street Y series in New York City and City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco. Wolfram will also conduct a summer class in the Boston area for college students who want to explore the ideas in the book, in addition to a planned distance-learning program. Though Ekizian's original contract with Wolfram ended last June, his continued involvement with the book speaks volumes about the fascination and controversy surrounding the author's thesis that all the complexity in the universe, from snowflakes to intelligence, can be generated from simple rules that may be the codes to all creation.
At Amazon, A New Kind of Science is the equivalent of the Duracell battery—it keeps on selling. In December, it got a fresh boost when it was named Amazon's #1 science book, as both an editor's pick and customer favorite, in the Best of 2002 store. Keith Moerer, Amazon's editor-in-chief for books, explained the book's online success: "It's a mainstream title that appeals to a savvy, sophisticated reader, and one that is difficult to find in stock at traditional bookstores."
Though the book also finished the year as USA Today's #3 science title, sales have begun to slow at many bricks-and-mortar stores. But it's still selling at the Borders Book Group, according to science buyer Karin Stratton, who noted that "the price makes it less likely for people to pick it up on an impulse." The book's natural constituency may be in college communities, such as Menlo Park, Calif., near Stanford University. At Kepler's Books and Magazines, the book no longer has the velocity it did last June, but it continues to sell five copies a week, according to inventory director Karen Pennington.
With what many of his peers regard as a characteristic lack of hubris, Wolfram has predicted that, like Einstein's theory of relativity, his New Kind of Science will be accepted within 20 years. So it comes as no surprise that he has no intention of selling U.S. paperback rights, though he is currently negotiating foreign rights deals.