Philip K Dick Topples the American Canon

By Neal Comment

pkdick-bestselling.jpgWhen the Library of America‘s publicist informed me that last year’s collection of four classic Philip K. Dick novels was their fastest-selling title ever, I was pleasantly surprised, but I wanted some proof. LOA marketing manager Brian McCarthy was happy to oblige, informing me that the Library had shipped 23,750 copies of Four Novels of the 1960s—the better part of two complete print runs—and that returns were a “staggeringly low” 5 percent. By way of comparison, the Library’s last major foray into science fiction and fantasy, the H.P. Lovecraft Tales published in 2005, sold 11,860 copies (with a similar return rate) in its first year (with gross sales-to-date now standing at 26,000-plus.)

But how does Dick stand up against the heavy hitters of American letters? The LOA’s first collection of Jack Kerouac novels shipped just under 15,000 copies in its first year, with a return rate of 10 percent. The two-volume collection of Edmund Wilson‘s critical writings from the 1920s to the 1940s shipped a combined total of 9,250 copies, with returns at 12 percent. And the American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries anthology clocked in at just under 4,200 copies shipped (8 percent returns).

“When we first conceived our multivolume and multi-year plan for a Philip K. Dick edition, we never dreamed that it would resonate so strongly with our readers,” McCarthy emailed me. “The closest comparison in terms of velocity of sales out of the gate would be our Grant and Sherman volumes, released in 1990 at the same time as the debut of Ken Burn’s The Civil War on PBS. But even those volumes didn’t sell as fast as has the PKD.” The success of the Dick collection—as well as the Kerouac and Lovecraft books—provides financial support for other LOA books that, as he says, “while essential additions to our national canon, generally do not sell at self-sustaining levels.” Not to mention that they bring a whole new readership to the Library, one which has the potential to branch out and explore other volumes. (Fans of Dick and Lovecraft, for example, might do well to consider the three-volume edition of I.B. Singer‘s short stories…)

As the Library prepares to ship its second PKD collection, Five Novels from the 1960s and 1970s, similar success seems well within the realm of possibility; the book won’t even be out for a month, and already there are more than 10,000 advance orders. And for those of you who think the LOA hardcovers are too fancy and expensive for your science fiction tastes, consider: “PKD1 offered at $35 four novels which in paperback cost $53,” McCarthy told me. “PKD2, at $40, offers five novels which in paperback cost $62.” Sounds like a good deal to me—now let’s see what we can do about getting the Library to put together the early Kurt Vonnegut