Fifteen years ago, a not so subtle gentleman with an important voice—he ran the book-order department of Barnes & Noble—asked the CEO of Henry Holt to participate in a TV advertising campaign for the chain, to the tune of $50,000. The CEO, for his part, was hoping to sell lots of copies of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, as he’d just learned from the happy salespeople at Henry Holt that the bookseller was set to display at least 20,000 copies of that marvelous tome in stores across the country. (I know this because, at the time, I was Holt’s CEO.) And so he asked Barnes & Noble, “Would your ad refer to Pynchon’s new novel?” The reply was unequivocal: “No.” In that case, the CEO inquired, “what’s the point of Holt’s contribution?” Barnes & Noble’s response: “Well, if you can’t come up with the sum, we’d order only half as many Pynchons.” And so they did.
Perhaps they realized that Pynchon was not the mass-market author they had pinned their hopes on. Leonard Riggio, Barnes & Noble’s chair at the time, had announced at a panel that his brother Stephen (his designated successor) had started to read the book and didn’t get beyond the first fifty pages or so. It was the one time I’d ever heard the company engage in aesthetic criticism, and it served only to obfuscate B&N’s business practices.
Full story at The Nation