It's a jaw-dropping accomplishment for an author to ship 50,000 copies of a self-published book to retailers on its publication date, let alone to hit #1 on Amazon.com in the first week on sale. But that's exactly what Stephen Wolfram did—and that was before Time, Newsweek and the New York Times Book Review covered the book.
Now, six weeks later, Wolfram's A New Kind of Science has hit even greater heights. Supported by brisk sales at online, chain and independent bookstores, it debuted at #16 on yesterday's New York Times extended list, following previous appearances on the Wall St. Journal and Barnes & Noble bestseller lists. It has also remained among Amazon's top 15 bestsellers since its May 12 publication, even though it has been sold without a discount through Amazon's Advantage program and has been shipping in two to three weeks. "Usually a book will spike, then drop a bit if it goes out of stock, but people just seem hellbent on getting this book," said Amazon bestsellers editor Tim Appelo.
Despite a retail price of $44.96 for the 1,197-page tome, which weighs in at 4½ pounds, wholesalers across the board are logging high demand as they wait for more stock to become available: 100,000 copies will be in print by the end of June. "It's a complicated book to produce, and now the issue is getting press time," explained publicist John Ekizian. The books are shipping directly from Kromar Printing in Winnipeg as they become available. Meanwhile, more media coverage is coming in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and the New York Times Magazine. NPR's Science Friday will cover the book July 7, with national TV bookings likely to follow.
Having bypassed the peer review process and publication of extracts in scholarly journals that typically precede a major science book, A New Kind of Science has become Topic A on Internet chat sites for scientists, while drawing mixed reactions from critics. Most reviewers acknowledge the importance of Wolfram's thesis—that simple computer codes account more convincingly for complex natural phenomena than Newtonian mathematical equations. But several prominent reviews have disputed his claim to being the sole discoverer of this "new kind of science" and its validity when applied in diverse disciplines. While many reviewers have marveled at the eerily realistic images of snowflakes, tree branches and the pigmentation patterns on leopards that Wolfram has generated from simple algorithms and reproduced in the book, others maintain that they prove very little. Meanwhile, readers are entering the debate in droves: more than 100 postings on Amazon.com alternately praise and pillory the book in unusually erudite terms.
For booksellers, the key questions are these: How quickly can they get stock and how many copies should they order? In answering the latter question, retailers must decide how the book's readability (or lack of it) will affect the scope of its appeal. Some, such as Karen Pennington at Kepler's Books and Magazines, dispute the claim that "any motivated reader should be able to plow through at least a few hundred pages before the details become too burdensome," as George Johnson declared in the New York Times Book Review. But having received 57 special orders for the book to date, she can't deny its sales potential among the highly educated, technically oriented readers who frequent her store near Stanford University. She compares the book to Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas T. Hofstadter, which became a bestseller in 1979 despite its intellectually challenging content. "It would be easy to make an overly conservative decision too early," she said. "But in college communities, this could become one of those books that just goes on and on."
Not Just Any Author
No stranger to unusual feats, Wolfram published his first paper on particle physics in 1975, when he was just 15 years old. The British-born prodigy earned his doctorate at CalTech at 20, becoming the youngest person ever to receive a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship the following year. By the time he was 26, he had innovated new ways to analyze such confounding physical phenomena as the movements of fluids. Eventually, he left academia to start Wolfram Research Inc., a software company based in Champaign, Ill., that produces a bestselling math program for scientific researchers and which has made him a multimillionaire.
When he began writing the book in 1989, Wolfram did not plan to self-publish it, said Ekizian. He sold the book on a proposal to Addison-Wesley in the early '90s, later parting ways when he did not deliver the book on a timetable acceptable to the publisher. In the mid-'90s, he sold the book to the Free Press, where sales reps presented the book to booksellers before the house eventually canceled it for the same reason: Wolfram wasn't done. Determined to apply his ideas in a wide range of fields—including physics, math, philosophy, robotics, economics, logic and even theology—Wolfram kept writing as he made new discoveries.
The rise of Amazon.com in the late '90s helped convinced Wolfram that self-publishing was a viable option, said Ekizian, since so many science readers buy books via the Web. He was also confident that his firm—which produces books to accompany its software—could do as good a job with the printing as a commercial publisher. (The book, which resembles a heavily illustrated textbook and includes more than 1,000 high-resolution black-and-white graphics, requires sheet-fed printing on high-quality paper.)
Wolfram enlisted Ekizian, a freelance publicist who was formerly publicity director at the Free Press, to join Jean Buck and David Reiss of Wolfram Media in marketing and publicizing the book. On Ekizian's suggestion, Wolfram hired publishing consultant Marilyn Allen, formerly a v-p of sales and marketing at HarperCollins and Pocket Books, to handle the national accounts. Borders, Barnes & Noble and Ingram all "got it right away," according to Ekizian, making substantial orders for a self-published book. In a more unusual step, the author charged his own Wolfram media sales reps to make cold calls at major independent bookstores. "We are encouraging people to go to Ingram and Baker & Taylor, though we can fulfill orders directly," said Ekizian. Though Wolfram has been besieged by offers from major houses for the paperback rights, he plans to retain them.
The book is likely to remain a live topic for the next year or more, as the scientific community evaluates Wolfram's grander claims. So long as Wolfram can keep the book available, that's good news for booksellers, and for readers eager to form their own opinions.