The Mystery of The Secret Man

On July 15, the daily Publisher’s Lunch e-mail offered a startling piece of nonfiction sales news: “Another recent big release, Bob Woodward’s THE SECRET MAN, is reported to have moved 17,900 copies in its opening week on sale, following an announced first printing of 850,000 copies and a laydown of somewhat less than that.”

The relatively uninspiring number raised a few eyebrows in publishing circles. The 850,000 hardcover print run for Woodward’s memoir about Deep Throat had suggested a certain confidence on the part of Simon & Schuster–conjuring images of a mad rush on bookstores as for a Clinton memoir or Harry Potter installment. Woodward’s history should have given reason for optimism: At least 12 previous Woodward books have made the New York Times bestseller list in hardcover; the least successful of them spent 11 weeks on the chart, as reported by the Times Book Review.

Make that 13 Woodward books–days after the Publishers Lunch item, The Secret Man debuted at No. 4 on the Times bestseller list, just ahead of Bernard Goldberg’s 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. It was No. 6 on the Publishers Weekly nonfiction list (one spot behind Goldberg).

According to Michael Cader, who edits Publishers Lunch, the 17,900 figure represented Nielsen BookScan’s sales through the weekend prior to July 15. So what happened? Did the book suddenly take off, prompted by the Karl Rove-Matt Cooper media kerfuffle over anonymous sources or nudged along by Woodward’s own heavy promotional media rotation?

Simon & Schuster would not answer any questions about the book’s sales figures (the publisher, David Rosenthal, would only write, in an e-mailed statement, “The Secret Man is a special and important book to Simon & Schuster and the author. And we’re thrilled with its success”). According to more recent BookScan figures, The Secret Man had sold 37,000 copies since its release, as of July 17.

The publishing industry hates BookScan–sales numbers are treated as trade secrets not to be discussed in polite company, and BookScan is often criticized for under-representing a book’s sales by as much as 25 to 35 percent. But the most generous interpretation would still leave 16 or more unsold copies of The Secret Man for every copy that’s been purchased.

So is the book flopping or not? Simon & Schuster provided a list of other bestseller charts that The Secret Man had landed on, including the Los Angeles Times (No. 7), Washington Post (No. 2) and USA Today (No. 31).

Those results suggest that whatever a book’s ambitions may be, 37,000 copies sold (or 35 percent more than that) is enough to catapult a title into the upper reaches of multiple lists.

According to Publishers Weekly executive editor Daisy Maryles, who is involved in compiling the magazine’s bestseller rankings, getting onto a list is often easier in the summer than it is in the fall, when competition can be much stiffer.

“It’s sort of scary,” said Ms. Maryles, “when you think of the population of the U.S., how little you have to sell in one week to make a top 10 or top 15 list.”

–Sheelah Kolhatkar