The Hub

News, Notes, Talk

How does the Nobel Prize affect book sales? (And what if there’s controversy?)

Aaron Robertson

December 11, 2019, 2:54pm

In the publishing world, it seems like winning the Nobel Prize just isn’t what it used to be.

A Deutsche Welle interview with Lucien Leitess, director of the Swiss publishing house Unionsverlag, explored the business of predicting a Nobel laureate’s commercial success. The controversy surrounding Austrian novelist Peter Handke’s Nobel win this year has raised serious questions about the future of the prize. It also makes one wonder: will Handke’s views negatively affect his book sales?

The Swedish Academy has been criticized before for its literature prize awardees (ah, don’t we miss the days when Bob Dylan was a controversial choice?). Leitess recalls Chinese author Mo Yan’s decried 2012 win, which some viewed as a turning point for the Academy. Mo Yan was celebrated by the Chinese government and largely censured in the West for his silence on the suppression of free speech in his country.

According to Leitess, about 80,000 copies of Mo Yan’s books sold after the win, a low number even compared to Handke; Handke’s German publisher has already sold 150,000 copies of his work. Both J.M. Coetzee and Alice Munro sold more than 300,000 copies in the months immediately after their respective wins.

Post-Nobel book sales depend on a number of factors, including the author’s previous reputation in their home country and whether they’re a poet or novelist. Generally the hype around an author peaks for a couple of years before steadying. There’s no easy way to guess how the trend will change, but one thing is almost certain: Handke won’t be getting a sales boost in Bosnia or Kosovo anytime soon.

%d bloggers like this: