September 03, 2004

Pamphleteering, old and new

Would-be pamphleteers like Marshall Sahlins could learn something, not only from weblogs, but also from science fiction publishers and spammers.

In an earlier discussion of Michael Silverstein's Talking Politics, I estimated that its amazon sales rank of 634,034 means that it's selling about one copy a month. Here are some estimates for other recent Prickly Paradigm pamphlets, in reverse chronological order. In each case, I've given the current amazon sales rank, and the corresponding rate of sales estimated from the graph given on Morris Rosenthal's page here:

#15 Lindsay Waters. Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship. Amazon sales rank 8,384 (5 copies per day).
#14 David Graeber. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Amazon sales rank 63,057 (= 0.4 copies per day)
#13 James Elkins. What Happened to Art Criticism? Amazon sales rank 82,485 (0.3 copies per day)
#12 Richard Price and Sally Price. The Root of Roots. Amazon sales rank 766,811 (= 0.02 copies per day)
#11 Magnus Fiskesjö. The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, the Death of Teddy's Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantanamo. Amazon sales rank 1,246,227 (= 0.007 copies per day)
#10 James Clifford. On the Edges of Anthropology: Interviews. Amazon sales rank 650,291 (0.03 copies per day)

Overall, of course, we see the expected drop off in sales with time.

But even the high-end sales of recent Prickly Paradigm pamphlets -- 5 copies per day -- is not evidence of much success in reaching a large audience of intellectuals. In comparison, I believe that the relatively intellectual weblogs listed on ephilosopher all get between a thousand and ten thousand readers per day. You can see our recent statistics here. I'm sure that (for example) Crooked Timber has an order of magnitude more readers than we do.

The comparison is not a fair one. A weblog entry of 100-1,000 words is not the same as a pamphlet of about 30,000 words. And a significant number of weblog readers are regulars, whereas everyone who buys a paper pamphlet is a new set of eyeballs. All the same, if you're in the business of "short, edgy, critical, cantankerous" commentary, and you don't have a regular spot in a mass-market media outlet, on line content is much more widely read than paper pamphlets are.

And if you give free samples to a couple of thousand people a day, how could you not sell more than .02-.03 copies as a result? Even if you got only the kind of click-through that spammers count on -- on the order of 50 per million -- you'd still more than double your backlist sales... In fact, the experience of the Baen Free Library, discussed here with statistics by Eric Flint, suggests that you might be able to do a great deal better than that.


[Update 9/22/2004: a .pdf of Silverstein's pamphlet is now available here. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 3, 2004 10:35 AM