One particular publisher was starting to show interest. The subject of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time came up. It is perhaps the most celebrated popular science work of the last few decades, so it is a book whose history interested us both. I made the point that mainstream publishers, because they are nearly all arts educated, tend to underestimate the interest of the general public in science, particularly in scientific subject matter which is potentially significant.
We discussed in more detail the publishing record of A Brief History of Time. Patrick Janson-Smith, its publisher at Transworld, reportedly warned Hawking that every formula he included in the book would halve the number of readers. Janson-Smith believed that, given the difficulty of the subject matter, the work would be immensely fortunate to achieve a sales figure of 25,000. In the event, A Brief History of Time sold a million copies in hardback over the next three years in the UK alone, and dominated the non-fiction bestseller lists during that period.
The publisher to whom I was talking, who shall remain nameless, immediately trotted out a favourite hoary myth amongst publishing folk about A Brief History of Time -- that, although it achieved astonishing sales, very few people actually read it. This unproven generalisation has always irritated me, largely because it seems to me strange that people would buy a book in such vast numbers without reading it. However, I managed to control myself, until the publisher added, "Of course, that was one those unusual books which was spread by word of mouth, and word of mouth is famously unpredictable and difficult to replicate." I'm afraid that was when my patience finally broke. I replied that one could perhaps argue at a stretch that no one read A Brief History of Time, but one surely could not argue at the same time that it was also sold largely by word of mouth. How could that operate? You buy the book, then phone up a friend and say, "I've just bought this bought in hardback which I can't understand and don't intend to read. You should rush out immediately and buy a copy, so that you won't understand and won't read it, just like me."
There was a strained silence at the end of the phone. I could sense I had made a faux pas by questioning the received view. (Now you perhaps know why I have found it difficult to deal with British corporate publishers -- I don't know when to keep my mouth shut.) I was clearly a troublesome maverick. Perhaps unsurprisingly, so far I haven't heard anything further from that particular publisher about publishing a paperback version of A Silent Gene Theory of Evolution.
Since I seem to be a master in the art of annoying people, perhaps I could add something further about that curious publishing phenomenon. Greatly though I admire Hawking as a man, the book itself seemed to me a relatively lightweight concoction. It included such trivia as the fact that Hawking was born almost exactly four hundred years after Newton. When it did address black holes and event horizons, it did so relatively lightly and anecdotally, clearly with a popular mainstream readership in mind.
In summary, perhaps I could add that I continue to find the mythology of this reputedly difficult work - which the general public bought in vast numbers, supposedly never read, but nevertheless enthusiastically recommended by word of mouth to their acquaintances - entirely perplexing.
Perhaps I suffer from an over-simple mind. I suspect that, outside the arts-educated publishing fraternity, people did actually read A Brief History of Time, found the autobiographical details of its remarkable author to be fascinating and entertaining, were intrigued by the tentative glimpses the book offered into black holes and the beginning of our universe, and - taking all these factors into account - enthusiastically recommended A Brief History of Time to their friends.