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The Talk of the Book World Still Can't Sell
By WARREN ST. JOHN
In its two months on the market, Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book "Creating a
Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children" has generated the
kind of publicity authors and publishers usually only dream of.
The book was featured on "60 Minutes" and the cover of Time and New York
magazines. It was promoted on "Oprah," "Today," "Good Morning America"
and the "NBC Nightly News." It was debated on the editorial and op-ed
pages of The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and The New
But there's one place you will not find a mention of Ms. Hewlett's book:
the best-seller lists. The most talked-about book in America, which
raises the specter that women who sacrifice families for careers might
wake up childless at 45, is hardly selling at all.
"It's shocking," said Meredith Schreiber, a manager of Powell's Books in
Portland, Ore., which has sold just four copies of "Creating a Life."
"That's hardly any, especially for something that's hit `Oprah.' "
The peculiar fate of "Creating a Life" is the publishing world's mystery
of the year. How could a book with such exposure - on the hot-button
topic of reconciling motherhood and career - sell so abysmally? Data
from the research marketing firm Bookscan suggest "Creating a Life" has
sold fewer than 8,000 copies. The book's publisher, Talk Miramax Books,
puts the number closer to 10,000 but acknowledges that the book has sold
far short of expectations.
Manhattan publishers, especially those at Talk Miramax, which paid a
six-figure advance for the book and printed 30,000 hardcover copies, are
considering the possible causes: a generic title, an ambiguous cover,
the failure of the news media to appreciate the nuances of Ms. Hewlett's
research. But out on the front lines, at the bookstores where publicity
turns to sales ó or does not ó the explanation is all too simple: women
are just not interested in shelling out $22 for a load of depressing
news about their biological clocks.
"Why would anybody go pay money for something that's going to make them
feel worse?" said Leslie Graham, the buyer for A Clean Well-Lighted
Place for Books in San Francisco, which has sold three copies of the
In Britain, where the book is published under the title "Baby Hunger,"
the situation is much the same. "If there was a pure correlation between
publicity and media, this would be a No. 1 best seller," said Toby
Mundy, the managing director of Atlantic Grove U.K., the book's British
publisher. "In fact it's not in the top 10. It's not even in the top 50."
And no one is more baffled than Ms. Hewlett. "I don't know what to make
of this absence of huge sales," she said. "There is a level at which I'm
From the beginning, there were signs of trouble. Ms. Hewlett originally
named her book "Baby Hunger," and Talk Miramax catalogs featuring that
title were distributed. But many involved with the book found the title
offensive. "People objected violently to it ó women at the company and
women in the book," said Jonathan Burnham, the editor in chief of Talk
Miramax Books. After polling friends and colleagues, Ms. Hewlett renamed
her book "Creating a Life." Mr. Mundy, the British publisher, insisted
on sticking with "Baby Hunger," he said, "to make this book as noisy as
it needs to be."
Ms. Hewlett's retitled book was launched to fanfare. In February, Tina
Brown, the chairman of Talk Media, invited media notables like Katie
Couric, Lesley Stahl and Wendy Wasserstein to a luncheon in Ms.
Over the clink of silverware on china, Ms. Hewlett presented the
findings of her research: Many successful women weren't having children,
she said, because their prime childbearing years coincided with the
years when companies demand the most energy and time from employees.
Women who put off having children until later did so with undue faith in
science to ensure their ability to get pregnant, she argued. But even
with fertility treatments, Ms. Hewlett reported, only 3 to 5 percent of
women over 40 are able to have children.
The outlook is actually not that dismal, said Dr. Alan DeCherney, editor
of the journal Fertility and Sterility, adding that Ms. Hewlett's
figures appeared to lump too many women together. For example, Dr.
DeCherney said, 15 to 20 percent of women ages 40 to 42 can become
pregnant, compared with fewer than 3 percent of women over 44.
Ms. Hewlett's book included a short list of strategies for women who
wanted to have children and successful careers - start looking for a
mate early, work for a company with progressive policies about
pregnancy - but it was the frightening news on fertility rates that
caught the media's attention.
The blitz was on. Both "60 Minutes" and Time emphasized the infertility
angle in their coverage. The magazine sold briskly - nearly 10 percent
more than Time's average newsstand volume - and a loud public
conversation began. Ms. Hewlett was praised for "breaking a silence" by
the psychologist and author Carol Gilligan. Critics disparaged the book
as a high-brow version of the mate-finding manual "The Rules."
In The Nation, the columnist Katha Pollitt wrote that "Creating a Life"
belonged "with all those books warning women that feminism - too much
confidence, too much optimism, too many choices, too much `pickiness'
about men - leads to lonely nights and empty bassinets."
It was exactly the sort of debate that typically drives big sales. "The
Rules," after all, spent 28 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list
five years ago. Similarly exposed books had long runs on the list as
well, including 39 weeks for Susan Faludi's "Backlash" in 1992.
But the publicity may have backfired. The book was portrayed in articles
as not merely controversial, but as scary. The headline on the cover of
New York magazine summed up the anxiety the book was generating: Baby
"There was one piece of bad luck ó that both `60 Minutes' and Time chose
to emphasize the infertility angle," Ms. Hewlett said. "They didn't
ambush me, they just chose the most bad-news aspects of the book."
Mr. Burnham said: "What people come away with is the frightening data.
They are taking in the bad news and not paying attention to the
Ms. Hewlett's book didn't make it easy to get to those prescriptive
elements. It is front-loaded with the regretful voices of women in their
50's who never had children. The advice section at the end feels cursory
The torrent of coverage had another unintended effect, dampening
interest among many readers.
"The woman who feels devastated that her life didn't work out doesn't
want to read about it," said Roxanne Coady, the owner of R. J. Julia
Booksellers in Madison, Conn. "The woman who gets it as a cautionary
tale gets what they need from the press."
Within days of publication Talk Miramax knew it had a flop on its hands.
Mr. Burnham was tracking sales of the book through daily reports. "We
expected a spike," he said. "We didn't get it."
Indeed, while the New York media was heaping attention on the book,
booksellers were ordering not by the box, but by the envelope.
"The media's expectation about things in many cases aren't the same as
the rest of America," said Ms. Graham, the San Francisco bookseller. "My
expectations were I'd sell a few, and I've sold a few." Ms. Graham said
that at her store, books about getting pregnant after 35 are outselling
"Creating a Life."
Ms. Hewlett said she was now "just absorbing the realities."
"Do I fault Talk Miramax for not molding the coverage?" she said. "I'm
not sure that kind of control is ever possible."
Talk Miramax says it has not given up on the book. "I feel the battle is
not over," said Mr. Burnham, the editor in chief. "Books have long,
complicated lives. I've not accepted that the book is a nonseller."
To that end, the company is focusing on a new marketing campaign for an
upcoming paperback edition, one that will emphasize Ms. Hewlett's
prescriptions for "having it all." It is also looking at new cover
"We did everything we could do and if we didn't anticipate the deep
level of anxiety on the part of women in America ó well that might be,"
said Hilary Bass, a spokeswoman for the company. "When you get that
personal it's hard to know."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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