Mark Zuckerberg is not Oprah Winfrey. It may not matter to publishing folk, though. When the Facebook CEO announced his new literary initiative, a book club called the Year of Books, on January 2, the parameters—a new title will be unveiled every two weeks—likely made stomachs in the industry drop. And for good reason. With no advance notice, since at present Facebook is not alerting publishers of forthcoming selections, houses will have to scramble to get print copies into the market. More problematically, by the time most accounts receive shipments, the club will have moved on to its next selection.
Perseus Books Group has seen this firsthand. The publisher, whose Basic Books imprint released the club’s inaugural selection, Moises Naim’s The End of Power (which looks at changes to the concept of power in the 21st century), moved quickly to get books on shelves. It said that, a week after news of the selection broke, it had sold 13,000 copies, 10,000 of which were e-books. Perseus CEO David Steinberger said that by using digital printing through the company’s Constellation digital platform, the house pushed out a total of 30,000 print copies within a week of Zuckerberg’s choice.
Print sales, however, may have peaked in the week after the selection; according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 80% of print sales, Power sold 3,089 trade paperback copies in the week ended January 11, a huge jump from the 29 copies it sold the prior week. However, sales fell to 1,298 copies, according to BookScan, in the week ended January 18. (By the end of last week, Steinberger confirmed that Perseus sold 15,000 e-book copies, and about 30,000 print copies.)
While those are solid numbers for a backlist title not otherwise receiving any media attention, they certainly don’t match what Oprah had been doing with her book club—her selections, which generally kept a book in the spotlight for a month or more, routinely generated sales of at least 500,000 additional copies for each pick. (By comparison, the community page on Facebook that Zuckerberg created for his book club has received over 270,000 “likes,” about six times the number of sales it generated for the Naim’s book.)
Despite the fact Zuckerberg’s club hasn’t moved the needle like Oprah’s, and despite the headaches it may cause publishers trying to set print runs, Penguin Books’s president and publisher Kathryn Court said the club is still a plus. When Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature was named the second selection in Zuckerberg’s book club last week, her imprint, which initially released the title in October 2011, went back to press, twice, to get 12,000 copies out before week’s end. When asked if she thought it might be wiser to simply let consumers buy the e-book, since the book club will reveal its third pick so soon, she said no. “It’s great that the digital edition is available immediately, but I also think people like to read physical books.”
Court noted that it’s important to her that “physical bookstores get some of [the business generated by Zuckerberg’s choice].” While she admitted that “in an ideal world” publishers would have more advance notice about the selections, it’s ultimately “great to have Mark Zuckerberg promoting books.”
Court was not particularly worried about facing a flood of print returns, either. Since Pinker is already well known, she believes this sudden attention will result in a long tail. “The book has sold consistently since we published it,” she said, “so I’m not concerned we’ll have to suddenly return thousands of copies.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Kathryn Court's title at Penguin as v-p and associate editor; she is president and publisher of the imprint.