Sunday, April 19, 2015

Numbers Of Copies Of Books

It feels like I've always been interested in numbers of books: how many copies there are of a certain title, how many books exist in this language or that, how many copies of a book there used to be which are now missing or have been destroyed.

I can't remember not being interested in such thing, but the interest had to begin some time. Perhaps it was in junior high, when I got a Dell paperback copy of Catch-22 with "OVER 8 MILLION COPIES IN PRINT!" on the front or back cover. Not long after that I saw a copy of Catch-22 from a later printing. The cover design was mostly similar, but it was red where the cover of the earlier book had been blue; and along with a few other minor changes it now said "OVER 8 MILLION COPIES SOLD!" I took this to mean that when the earlier copy was printed, 1973 perhaps? that printing took the total to over 8 million, and that a year or two later enough of the earlier printing had been sold to honestly say "SOLD!" on the cover instead of "IN PRINT!" Did the cover designers at Dell really keep track that closely of the numbers of copies in print and sold? Am I giving Dell way too much credit for making sure the covers were accurate? I have no idea. For a while I definitely tried to keep track of Catch-22's sales, and I seem to remember seeing conflicting numbers from various sources, but in retrospect, that's explained at least as easily by journalistic sloppiness as by inaccuracy of reporting of sales figures by Dell.

I began to notice that publishers made great fanfare about sales figures, or the number of copies in a first printing, in some cases, and that in other cases they kept the information confidential.

This confidentiality was very frustrating to me -- don't ask for a rational reason why I needed to be informed about the sales figures for Gore Vidal' or Saul Bellow's books. This post doesn't necessarily have a lot to do with rationality -- so imagine how I felt when I became an undergraduate German major in the late 1980's, and discovered that many German publishers provided precise information about the numbers of copies of any particular edition, in the most convenient place imaginable -- right on the copyright page! What a country!

I'll give you 2 examples: On the copyright page of the 1979 Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag edition of Franz Kafka's Prozeß (The Trial), right above where it sez that this is an unabridged edition, stands: "1032. -- 1051. Tausend: Dezember 1989." This means: before this printing, in December 1989, there were 1,031,000 copies of this edition in print, and now there are 1,051,000. The December, 1989 printing was a run of 20,000 copies. Keep in mind, these are the figures for this 1979 paperback edition only. Who knows how many more paperback and hardcover copies of the Prozeß there are, before you even get to huge commercial considerations such as translations into other languages. If Franz Kafka had still been alive in December 1989, it would've been pretty sweet to be Franz Kafka, even if he was 106 years old.

2nd example: volume 3 of the Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag (commonly referred to as DTV) edition of Heinrich von Kleist's complete works, Dramen, Dritter Teil (Plays, Part Three. The first two lines on the copyright page are "1. Auflage März 1964" and "2. Auflage Februar 1969: 21. bis 30. Tausend." In other words, "1st printing March 1964" and "2nd printing February 1969: 20,001 to 30,000 copies."

Not every single German publisher did this, but it seemed like most of them. I was a kid in a candy store. That's right, I said "did" and "was." Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag and DTV and almost all German publishers stopped putting such information within easy public reach, within a half-dozen years of my discovering those once-wonderful German copyright pages. Now they resemble American copyright pages: sometimes they give the date of the first printing and the most recent printing of that edition, sometimes just the date of the first printing. Apparently American publishers circulated a memo to German publishers: "URGENT! Your practice of giving detailed information about the size of printings has been giving joy to an American citizen, Steven Bollinger. PLEASE CEASE AND DESIST AT ONCE." Or, in the ultra-paranoid version, "[...]giving joy to an autistic American citizen, Steven Bollinger[...]" because American publishers knew I was autistic 15 to 20 years before I found out.

In the rational and non-paranoid version, this had nothing to do with me, and I still don't know why German publishers used to put that info on the copyright pages, and why they stopped. All I know is that if someone writes a book giving an overview of the numbers of books made all over the world, from ancient times to the present -- and that someone might have to be me. I'm not sure that anyone else particularly cares -- the chapter on Germany between 1920 and 1990 will be much, much easier to write than some other chapters.

There may once have been someone with similar interests: Theodor Birt, born 1852 in Hamburg, died 1933 in Marburg, author of Das Antike Buchwesen in Seinem Verhältniss Zur Litteratur,

an investigation of how ancient Greek and Latin books were made and sold.

The numbers of manuscripts of ancient Greek and Latin texts which we have today is a different thing than the numbers of copies of those texts which were in circulation when they were new. Most of the manuscripts we have now were made in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. And their numbers don't even give us complete and precise information about the relative popularity of ancient authors in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, because chance plays a big role in those manuscripts having survived. Nevertheless, if we have hundreds of manuscripts of a particular ancient text, it's not too much of a stretch to think that that text was popular in the Middle Ages.

The thing is, as far as I can tell, the exact numbers of all such manuscripts are not neatly organized and gathered together in any one place of which I know, as you would expect them to be if a lot of Classical scholars were autistic. There is a catalog (with photos) of all known Latin literary manuscripts from before AD 800, the Codices Latini Antiquiores, 14 volumes plus an index, with 18,884 manuscripts of more than 2000 works, according to Wikipedia. The thing is, there are many more manuscripts surviving today which were made after 800, than before. Many times more, I would think. How many times? I couldn't guess. And I can't find any catalog for manuscripts from all eras which is comparable to the Codices Latini Antiquiores. (Also known as the CLA.)

There are thousands of Biblical manuscripts. I wouldn't be surprised if the number of manuscripts of Vergil ran into 4 figures. I am quite surprised at how difficult it has been for me to find so much as an educated guess about how many manuscripts of Vergil there are. Here and there I run across a figure: There are over 650 manuscripts of Terence. More than 400 of Ovid's Metamorphoses. In 1989, Reeve said that Mommsen, Luchs and Dorey had listed 117 manuscripts of the third decade (that is, books 21-30) of Livy. Reeve doesn't say when they made that list, but in 1987 he added 33 more, and then 4 more in 1989, for a total of 154.

Reeve doesn't say how many manuscripts of the other books of Livy there are.

113 known manuscripts of the third decade -- sometime. Probably some time in the 19th century. Then in the late 20th century that number suddenly grew by over 30%.

I wonder whether anyone has even any rough idea of the ratio of the number of manuscripts of the Latin Classics which we have today, to the total number which were ever made. But before I even start to wonder about that, I have to wonder whether anyone even has a rough idea of the total number of manuscripts of the Latin Classics which we have.

I wonder whether I have a better idea of that number than anyone else, simply because none of the much-better-educated people even cares.

No, surely some of them care at least a little bit.

I need to make up an orderly list of such questions and start going around to Classical scholars and asking them. Who knows, the combination of my obsessions and neurological atypicality may actually yield something of interest or even of practical use to someone someday.

And wouldn't that blow everybody's minds.

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