A brief history of a surprise best-seller

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The Independent Online
THE book in question, sniffed the reviewer, "is his not-altogether- satisfactory explanation, to the layman, of the ideas that have earned him so much respect among his colleagues ... [the] presentation is disappointing ... there is little sense of how and why people chose to ask the questions to which the book provides simplified answers".

What a thing hindsight is. One feels sure that, 10 years later, the person who wrote that review for the Economist would wish they had added: "But it's going to sell by the truckload."

For the book was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, first published in June 1988. Since that rather unenthusiastic review, it has sold 10 million copies worldwide (making its author a millionaire), been translated into 38 languages, been republished in an illustrated version, turned into a TV series and become a byword for books that people buy and display ostentatiously but never actually finish - what Bantam Press, the publishers, call "social furniture". It is also the most successful science book of all time. Not bad for a not-altogether- satisfactory explanation of how the universe began and will probably end. And now there is a new edition.

"None of us had the expectation it would be anything like this," recalls Larry Finlay, now the publisher at Bantam, who at the time was the company's marketing director. "The initial subscription from bookshops was for 5,500, which wasn't bad for a hardback scientific book retailing at pounds 15." The company printed 9,000. Within a few weeks it was reprinting 10,000 every week to keep pace with demand.

Within two months, it had become a runaway success, topping best-seller lists. That August, the (non-scientific) commentator Simon Jenkins observed that "buying a book is a step more virtuous than merely reading a review of it, but need not involve reading it ... Hawking is, I am sure, benefiting from 'wisdom by association'."

"I think one of the things that contributed to its success was Stephen Hawking's disability: the fascination that this man suffering from motor neurone disease could have this amazing brain," comments Larry Finlay. "And beyond that, there was a minority of people who got into it and found it an incredible book. They were evangelical about it, and that sold it."

But how many of those 10 million books have been read to the end? "We can't really know. But for it to have gone on selling for so long, it can't have just been as furniture."

The new edition has been updated "to include the latest findings in the field". Anyone who sneaked a look at the last page of the book (or actually read through to the end) should know that we still have not "looked on the face of God", as Hawking put it in the original.

Instead, it's clear from recent astronomical measurements that the universe will continue expanding forever. So, plenty of time for more versions of the book. Perhaps the next one will be the pop-up version? We can only look forward to how it handles the Big Bang.