Pulitzer Prize: huge sales neither required nor guaranteed

After winning the highest honor in the literary world, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winners have seen sales increases – but so far the numbers are pretty tiny.

Before the announcement that the title had won a 2013 Pulitzer Prize, the publisher of 'Devil in the Grove' was planning to liquidate the book due to low sales.

It’s the gold standard, the highest honor, the single most important mark of excellence and prestige.

In the publishing world, there is no prize more coveted than the Pulitzer, a distinction that sets the cream of the book crop apart from the rest.

And with that distinction comes the so-called “Pulitzer bump,” a sharp increase in book sales that award winners and their publishers eagerly await.

At least, according to media reports.

Publishers Weekly calls it a “windfall.” The AP calls it a “sure way” of increasing sales. And the New Orleans Times-Picayune calls it a “big bump in sales.”

Two weeks after the 2013 Pulitzers were announced, all five winning books have, in fact, seen an increase in sales.

The numbers, however, are woefully underwhelming.

“Embers of War,” by Fredrik Logevall, saw 2013 sales increase from 40 (yes, you read that right) copies before the announcement to 353 after it, according to Nielsen BookScan and Publishers Weekly.

Sales of Tom Reiss’s “The Black Count,” inched up from 135 to 501 copies.

Sharon Old’s “Stag’s Leap” saw sales increase from 51 copies to 492.

And Fiction winner “The Orphan Master’s Son,” by Adam Johnson, saw sales increase from 413 copies to 2,477 after the award announcement.

Sales of 353, 492, 501? We’d hardly call that a windfall.

The most surprising case of all is nonfiction winner Gilbert King, whose book, “Devil in the Grove,” had been remaindered before his Pulitzer win.

That’s right, publisher HarperCollins had started liquidating the book – poised to become a Pulitzer-winner – at reduced price, due to extremely low sales. 

This, in an industry where soft porn (“Fifty Shades”) and Snooki (“Shore Thing”) are runaway bestsellers.

It’s a peculiar phenomenon, that such highly acclaimed works (all of which had been well-reviewed in the press) are so poorly rewarded in the marketplace. But we can’t say we’re surprised. After all, film often suffers the same fate – fine work sometimes means low interest and sales.

Maybe the good news is that strong sales are not required to win a Pulitzer. And fortunately there are many authors willing to ignore the sales tickers and trends to continue to produce high-quality literature that earns accolades. 

We only hope it earns readers and sales, too.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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