The End of the Story of a Book

This continues The Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas

This story of Alice Miller’s first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, ended last week (click here) as it hit the U.S. market with little fanfare. Even though it was about to change how a generation would view the harm inflicted by one’s upbringing, Miller’s book looked (to anyone paying attention to its publication date) doomed. It would be barely a flash in the pan, published and forgotten without being read. Now the story takes a surprising turn.

Shortly after publication, still unpublicized, Miller’s book started selling one thousand copies each week. In those days, that level of sales was enviable. No one could explain why, but reviewers took note and began playing catch up with late reviews. Sales increased further. Anecdotes trickled in from bookstores that people bought in two’s—one for themselves and one for their therapists.[1] Miller’s book was on its way to becoming a manifesto for the empowered patient participating as an equal in the process of therapy. This was quite new. Usually therapists–psychoanalysts to be exact–were detached authority figures. All that was changing.

There is no good news in publishing without more risk. Bestsellers used to be very risky. Reprints had to be ordered as demand increased. Now, books can be printed quickly in small quantities. Risk is lower. Forty years ago, it was different. Reprints took weeks. Quantities were guesstimated. The bigger the reprint, the cheaper each unit cost. Large reprints however created intense pressure to sell more and earn back their cost. The worst scenario was storing thousands of copies unsold because that meant a bestseller had become a financial bust.

Editors were trained to be hypervigilant if sales momentum took off, i.e., if a book “got legs.” Production experts helped them have enough—but not too much—inventory. Miller’s editor was juggling reprints when Alice Miller made a shocking demand that would, by any publishing standard, destroy sales. Miller demanded that Vintage immediately stop publishing under the English title (Prisoners of Childhood) and start publishing under an English translation of the original German title, The Drama of the Gifted Child and The Search for the True Self. The change threatened staggering losses. All existing books bore the wrong title on every odd-numbered page. The cover would need a redesign before a new printing. There was something worse, too. Bookstores were not yet computerized. Their clunky systems could not accommodate title changes. If book sales were recorded under two different titles, the total sales ranking of both would be lost. The original title would lose its standing, along with coveted special placements as a breakout book.

Miller insisted against all reason. As a first-time author, her naivete was not surprising. However, the editor held the line. Publishers have final choice on titles, and exercising that right was a financial necessity. Miller furiously accused her editor of “… treating me as a psychotic child,” which the editor would have understood as Miller calling her a poisonous parent. The relationship crashed and burned. While uncommon, Miller somehow managed to leave Vintage shortly after first publication. Her new publisher, the direct competitor Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, issued her book with a compromise using both titles (Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of the Gifted Child and The Search for the True Self).[2]  It was not until 1997, when Basic Books published a revised edition over 15 years later, that Miller finally got the title she wanted: The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self, Revised Edition.

After leaving Vintage, Alice Miller published many books. Her readers could not get enough of her insights and psycho-biographic sketches exploring adulthoods which had presumably been hobbled by traumatic upbringing. The Drama of the Gifted Child would not be the only time Miller ignored conventional publishing wisdom. Toward the end of her life, Miller published Pictures of My Life (Bilder meines Lebens). The book jacket and many, many reviews described it as an informal autobiography. What it was, was a visual art book that reproduced Miller’s paintings over a period of 30 years as an expression of her own self-discovery. Few editors would have taken the risk on publishing any visual book at this time for this genre. But Miller readers managed to drive sales. Once again, Miller managed to buck standard publishing models as she had with The Drama of the Gifted Child.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Isay, Jane. How I Found Alice Miller, and Lost Her. The Huffington Post. June 28, 2010. Accessed 9/1/2020. This article is a great read by an unparalleled book editor on finding and losing Alice Miller as an author.  

[2] Isay. Op. Sit.

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