LOS ANGELES -- Two weeks ago, Rush Limbaugh and Jimmy Buffett -- pop culture icons, both -- topped the New York Times hardcover best-seller lists. Two weeks ago, Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize for literature.
A famous face or high media profile can obviously be used to jump-start book sales. But does literary acclaim also result in dollars at the bookstore?
"It certainly has some impact," said Helene Atwan, associate publisher for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Ms. Atwan has firsthand experience with the question: FSG publishes both Mr. Walcott and last year's Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer. Ms. Atwan said there was a "flurry of orders" when Mr. Walcott's award was announced, and "many stores brought his books out of the poetry and drama sections and put them in the window -- and that has an immediate impact."
Because the Nobel is for a body of work rather than a particular title, the award also has an impact on long-term sales. "For all laureates,"
said Ms. Atwan, "books are kept in permanent back-stock in most good bookstores, (offering) at least one of each of the author's titles in print. It gives them a much deeper representation in the stores."
"I don't know that I can quantify it, particularly in the case of Walcott, whose works are collections of poetry and plays. In the case of Gordimer, a novelist and short-story writer, the impact is more apparent," Ms. Atwan said, noting that sales of the hardcover edition of "Jump and Other Stories," the newest Ms. Gordimer title at the time of her award, doubled.
Ms. Gordimer's work is published in paperback by Penguin, and Penguin spokeswoman Janet Kraybill said Ms. Gordimer's Nobel prize last year had spurred sales of all 14 titles then in print, some selling at as much as seven times the previous rate. "It certainly doesn't put somebody on the No. 1 spot on the New York Times list, but it does wonders for our backlist. We noticed an immediate increase," Ms. Kraybill said. "It's settled down a bit now, but it is still greater than it was before."
But does pop culture notoriety sell more books than literary laurels?
"That's unquestionably true," Ms. Atwan said with a laugh. "On the other hand, literary accolades and prizes do sell books, too. And a big part of it with the Nobel is that it attracts a lot of media attention -- they are very interested in the author, not just in the moment. And for the author's next books, we can get more media attention."