"Then We Came to the End," first-time author Joshua Ferris's satirical narrative of office life in a Chicago advertising agency, got the sort of universal acclaim from book critics that novelists dream of, and almost never happens. First came the coveted cover of the New York Times Book Review, which declared Mr. Ferris's book "expansive, great-hearted and acidly funny"; then came an over-the-top rave from the Washington Post, which said that "categorizing ‘Then We Came to the End' as anything other than an original and inspired work of fiction would be doing it a great disservice"; finally, praise from Gawker.com: "Pretty good!" the Web site declared.
So why did "Then We Came to the End" not become a New York Times bestseller? Why does the reading public not know Mr. Ferris's life story the way it so often becomes familiar with young literary lions? Why have comparatively few people heard of his novel, read it, or embraced it as the discovery of the season, if not the year? In previous generations, first novelists with similar raves — e.g. Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Joseph Heller — experienced immediate stardom and financial success as the result of similar critical support.
It's hardly fair to label "Then We Came to the End" a failure. The book's publisher, Little Brown, says it has shipped 50,000 copies. It's in its fourth printing, and still selling well. That's a goal rarely achieved by any writer, let alone a debut novelist. Its smart yet realistic editor, Reagan Arthur, accurately describes "Then We Came to the End" as "slow-developing but genuine success." The book has already returned a profit for its publisher, has been optioned by HBO Films (with Mr. Ferris attached to write the script), and has come closer than most to hitting that ever-shrinking bull's eye of best-sellerdom.
But no one could possibly call the novel a national sensation. And its mid-range sales figures seem especially odd in light of the industry's recent hand-wringing over the elimination of book-review sections in newspapers, where Mr. Ferris's book did dominate. Two weeks ago, picketers actually marched in front of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to protest the removal of Teresa Weaver, the paper's book review editor. Others have howled about publications being gforced to move their book coverage to the Web. The Chicago Tribune's book review section, once a part of the paper's high-circulation Sunday paper, has been relegated to the tiny Saturday edition. No less a novelist than Richard Ford decried the shift as "another erosive loss to the public's cultural discourse."
I'll concede the point that book review sections don't deserve to be whacked. But why doesn't discourse result in sales? If Mr. Ford is right, then shouldn't smart, alert readers have been lining up to buy the Ferris novel? Something doesn't compute.
"Frankly, your question is depressing me," Ms. Arthur, who made a pre-emptive bid for the book in the fall of 2005, said. "The book is profitable. It's gaining more of an audience every day, slowly. Should it have been a bestseller? Probably. I don't know why it wasn't."
I don't, either. It used to be that books had the shelf-life of a container of yogurt. Nowadays it seems more like hamburger meat. If a book doesn't make it to the New York Times bestseller list within the first several days of arrival, it never will. Even "Heyday," Kurt Andersen's hugely hyped historical novel that also garnered cover-boy treatment in the Times, only lasted a couple of weeks on the list before falling away. Interestingly — and not coincidentally — much of the commercial fiction that lasts the longest on the Times's list doesn't get reviewed at all. Does that mean book buyers are less interested in discourse, and more interested in the latest Jodi Picoult? Apparently.
Part of the problem may be that bookstores don't pay close enough attention to reviews. I went to look for "Then We Came to the End" at the Lincoln Square Barnes & Noble the day after the Times review, and experienced the kind of scenario that leads authors into years of costly psychotherapy. No one knew where to find it. Three clerks and 10 minutes later, I'd bought one of the store's last three copies. At that moment it occurred to me: What if bookstores created sections devoted to that week's best-reviewed books? Or posted positive reviews alongside the books themselves? That way, book reviews (even those that appeared only online) would be easily accessible to those most likely to buy books — people already browsing in the bookstore. Right now, bookstores place all their marketing muscle behind bestseller lists, meaning that prize positions get awarded to those who've already won the horse race. Even movie theaters operate according to more democratic principles than that. Shouldn't good bookstore placement go to good books? Just a thought.
It's easy to blame the bookstores, or the heinous overlords of newsprint, for the problem. But publishers, and even authors, deserve a little of the blame — especially when they pretend that marketing doesn't matter. In the case of Little Brown and Mr. Ferris, some attention to the novel's cumbersome title might have helped. Was "Then We Came to the End" really the best title for this wonderful novel? I doubt it. By allowing his impossible-to-remember title to remain on the book, everyone involved willfully ignored the pragmatic truths of the 2007 literary marketplace: Sometimes the catchier title wins. It's no coincidence that the cleverly-titled "Heyday" sold better, even though it's hard to believe any readers preferred Mr. Andersen's self-conscious artifice over Mr. Ferris's heartfelt tour de force.
"Nobody ever remembers the title exactly right," Ms. Arthur sighed. "Usually they call it ‘the office novel' or something." Try asking for "the office novel" at Barnes & Noble and see how far you get.