The myth of posthumous success
According a Unesco study, 328,259 new books were published in the United States in 2011, the most recent year for which complete data are available. That is by far the most conservative of many estimates, some of which range up to 10,000,000.
There’s general agreement among publishers and book retailers that more than 85% of the books published each year sell fewer than 100 copies. Even at the low Unesco number, that’s 279,020 books that will never find an audience beyond a small group of the authors’ close friends and relatives.
In the face of that dismal prospect authors console themselves with high hopes for eventual recognition and vindication because, as they often proclaim, “Many great writers are not recognized in their lifetimes, but achieve posthumous fame.”
The authors who are ignored today will not be magically lionized after death. In fact, it’s hard to come up with a single English-language writer who went from invisible to literary luminary after shuffling off her or his mortal coil.
The nineteenth century offers an excellent example.
Quick, name an unrecognized nineteenth-century English-language author or poet who went on to posthumous recognition.
The six most common responses are Thoreau, Poe, Keats, Austen, Melville and Dickenson. But actually the work of all six was, to a greater or lesser extent, reasonably well disseminated in their lifetimes:
Henry David Thoreau famously had to self-publish A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and he only sold 300 of the 1,000 copies he had printed. But given the number of literate people in America in 1849, that’s the equivalent of about 9,000 copies today. Certainly not fifty shades of a blockbuster book, but not a dismal failure either.
Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” was an immediate success and although Poe never became wealthy he did eek out a living as a writer.
John Keats managed to secure a publisher, though critical approval eluded him in his lifetime. But just getting a publisher is better than most of the 279,020 under 100 copies writers can manage.
Jane Austen had publishing successes with Sense and Sensability, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma in her lifetime, despite a lack of critical enthusiasm for them.
Herman Melville was forgotten by the time he died, but his first book earned an advance that would be $36,000 in today’s dollars. The next one got a combined $65,000 advance (again, in 2012 dollars) from his British and American publishers. Not J.K. Rowling money, but that would be more than respectable for most authors today. And those books were Typee and Omou. Billy Budd and Moby Dick were yet to come.
Emily Dickenson’s poems “Nobody knows this little rose,” “The Snake,” “The Sleeping,” “Sunset,” other poems and some letters were published in the Springfield Republican during her lifetime, as were poems in Drum Beat, the Brooklyn Daily Union and an anthology, A Masque of Poets.
There are four key factors which will keep this generation’s unknown books and writers from becoming the next generation’s literary celebrities:
1. The six writers or poets most often touted as posthumous successes all had perceptible literary presences while alive, and that their renown – and/or their sales – grew from a pre-established base after their deaths. Like Elvis.
2. No one seems able to come up with any nineteenth-century English-language writer who was completely unknown is her or his lifetime and became celebrated after death. (I use nineteenth-century writers as an example because now, just over a dozen years into the twenty-first century, there may still be time for twentieth-century writers to be discovered.) Not one. The six most often cited all had some perceptible literary presence.
3. No completely unknown writer emerged from complete obscurity to prominence among the mere thousands published in the nineteenth century. It is inconceivable that one will emerge from under the pile of the half billion or more who will publish in the twenty-first century.
4. Books represented a much more significant possession in the nineteenth century. A volume – even one which the owner did not greatly admire – had substance and value, and was unlikely to be discarded. The collections of electrons on our Kindles and Nooks will almost certainly disappear.
So as Robert Herrick said, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Literary celebrity is not likely to be retroactive.