Trivia

Hard

Which One Of These Iconic Novels Sold Less Than A Few Dozen Copies A Year For Decades After Publication?

Moby Dick
The Hobbit
Catcher in the Rye
The Grapes of Wrath
The title page for the first American edition of Moby-Dick.
Chick Bowen/Wikimedia

Answer: Moby Dick

Today, Moby Dick is considered one of the Great American Novels—a book that captures the essence of an era in American history, the struggle of its peoples, and serves as a sort of epic tale for the nation. That tall accolade for Herman Melville’s iconic work didn’t come until long after publication, however, and when the novel was first released, it was as far from a best seller as a book could be.

While the novel would sell quite well in the 20th century, when it was first published in 1851, sales were anything but brisk. During the first year and a half that it was available for purchase, the book sold 2,300 copies worldwide. Over the next 34 years, Moby Dick sold an average of 27 copies per year (for a total of 3,215 copies).

So what turned the tide in favor of Melville’s epic tale? While early literary reviews were harsh and his publishers were underwhelmed with the novel’s sales performance compared to his earlier novels (all conspiring to push the book out of the public spotlight), all that changed with his death.

Shortly after Melville’s death in 1891, his books were reprinted, including Moby Dick (despite how poorly it had sold in the preceding 40 years). The book caught the attention of a new generation of readers, including those in New York City’s growing literary circles, and by the early 20th century, Moby Dick was regarded as a masterpiece and classic American novel.

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