As the Literary Saloon points out, Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown has sold only 26,000 copies, despite a massive publicity blitz. M.A.O. suggests that this is because nobody is really interested in reading Rushdie.
But I think the answer is simpler. Who, outside of hard-core literary geeks, can really remember a title like Shalimar the Clown? And are clowns really all that sexy? Perhaps in small doses, such as between acts at a circus. But not throughout the duration of an entire novel. (Which is not, incidentally, how Shalimar is structured, but we’re talking about impressions here!)
If I were Rushdie’s publisher, I would have urged Rushdie to come up with a title that didn’t involve clowns at all or that included words with no more than two syllables. Midnight’s Children? Sure. The Satanic Verses? Absolutely. Rolls off the tip of the tongue and cements itself into your head. But Shalimar the Clown? Not really a lot of enigma there. You may as well call the book Joe the Barber.
Besides, name a book or a film with the words “the clown” in it that has actually sold well. Not even a Robin Williams cameo in 1992 could save Shakes the Clown from losing dinero.
The moral of the story: If you want to make money, don’t include the words “the clown” in your title.
[UPDATE: OGIC notes that the Times may have the figure wrong and that the actual number is closer to 80,000. If this is indeed the case, then this is a serious journalistic mistake that deserves more than a mere “correction,” particularly since the article went out of its way to suggest that Rushdie sales fell dramatically short of publisher expectations, imputing that fiction sales were in a slump. (An image of the specific paragraph, if the Gray Lady corrects it, can be found here. Perhaps someone with a Bookscan account can contribute Shalimar‘s true sales here.]