What Were People Reading In the Summer of 1972?

Fifty years ago this month, the book at the top of The Times’s fiction best-seller list was Richard Bach’s 93-page fable, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” which The Times described as “a tale about a bird who turns an enlightened wing upon his garbage-scrounging and angst‐stricken contemporaries to test his mettle against the rigors of high flight.”

It wasn’t a new title — it had come out on Aug. 31, 1970, with a first printing of only 3,000 copies — but it was that rare thing: a sleeper hit, one that took almost two years to reach the No. 1 spot.

“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” almost wasn’t published. In fact, it almost wasn’t completed — Bach, who said the book came to him as “a visionesque spooky thing,” stopped after he wrote 10 pages and didn’t pick it up again for a few years. When he finally did finish it, his agent his, Don Gold, tried and failed to interest children’s book publishers. One editor who rejected it wrote: “The personification of the seagull represents a grave problem. Jonathan’s lucid analysis … seems to suggest that birds really can analyze the physics of flight. There is no evidence that this can be true.”

Several years later, the manuscript ended up with Eleanor Friede, an editor at Macmillan. “I think it has a chance of growing into a long-lasting standard book for readers of all ages,” she wrote with considerable prescience in her her acquisition memo of her. She ended up offering Bach a paltry $2,000 advance (the equivalent of about $15,000 today).

“Not a single magazine or newspaper — including the Book Review — so much as mentioned” the book when it first came out, The Times reported in 1972. Macmillan, which had failed to secure any advance publicity for Bach, bought two very small ads to mark the book’s publication: one in the Book Review, the other in Publishers Weekly (which, in its review, had opined that “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was “a mite too icky poo for comfort”).

None of that held the book back. By Christmas of 1970, its first printing had sold out. Over the next 12 months, Macmillan went back to press for an additional 140,000 copies.

“Booksellers, still believing that a story about a bird couldn’t be fiction, didn’t know where to place it in their store,” The Times reported. “Some put it under nature, some under religion, some under photography, some under children’s books.” Friede’s advice? “Put it next to the cash register.”

Spurred by word-of-mouth sales, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” made its debut on The Times’s best-seller list on April 20, 1972. By July 1972, Macmillan had gone back to press 13 times for a total of 440,000 in print. The next month, when Avon secured the book’s paperback rights for a record-shattering $1.1 million, Bach told The Times, “Jonathan is neither sex nor violence, and he is able to be appreciated in a world that most people say is sex and violence .”

Tina Jordan is the deputy editor of the Book Review.

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