In the 16th century, the world’s bestselling book was not the Bible but Erasmus’s handbook on good manners for children, De Civilitate Morum Puerilium Libellus. Written in Latin in Freiburg in 1530, it has run to 130 editions over 300 years. It was translated into 22 languages within a decade of publication.
The record for the world’s slowest-selling book is held by the Oxford University Press’s translation of the New Testament from Coptic into Latin. Five hundred copies were printed in 1716; the last one was snapped up in 1907. Books have been printed in Oxford since 1478, but the first one printed there – an analysis of the Apostles’ Creed – had a misprint on the first page: it was dated 1468 not 1478.
Slow sellers II
In more recent times, of the 200,000 books that had recorded sales in 2008, only 10,000 sold more than 3,500 copies. Of the 1.2 million different titles sold in the US in 2004, only two per cent sold more than 5,000 copies. In 2007, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) revealed that the average UK author earned £16,000, 33 per cent below the national average wage. Strip out the top 10 per cent of authors, and a writer’s average annual income falls to £4,000.
Drive on Mills and Boon
Part of the M6 toll road is built from copies of pulped Mills and Boon novels. 2.5 million books were shredded into a paste and then added to a mixture of asphalt and Tarmac to prevent it cracking. The British Library’s collection of Mills & Boon novels was once stored in “The Arched Room” at the British Museum, but when the library moved to its new site they were replaced with clay tablets covered in cuneiform writing that once formed part of the library of King Ashurbanipal, a sixth-century King of Assyria.
Leo Tolstoy wrote a large book called War and Peace before computers and copying machines. His wife had to copy his manuscript by hand seven times.
Nabokov wrote some of his novels – including Lolita – on index cards while he was a curator of butterflies at Harvard University. His wife, Vera, would drive him out on butterfly collecting trips and after he’d collected his specimens he’d sit down to write on the same index cards he used to catalogue his species. After he’d finished writing, she’d type up his handwritten cards.