I was having lunch with Kent Carroll, the publisher of Europa Editions, and we started talking about prizes: the Booker being opened up to Americans, the value of a prize, does it always increase sales, does it guarantee fame. The usual publishing gossip. Thing was, he had a story that went beyond the usual.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980, eleven years after the author committed suicide. It’s a great publishing story, a southern gothic story, involving a relentless mother, many rejections, and Walker Percy, who had brought the ten year old manuscript to the university press and wrote the introduction.
Carroll, then at Grove Press, acquired world English language paperback rights from LSU, making the offer for $2000 (his ceiling) after the book kept him up all night reading. Grove published the paperback in April, 1981, having launched a publicity blitz for the LSU hardcover that led to extraordinary reviews and extraordinary coverage.
That year, Carroll was having a drink in a Greenwich Village Bar looking up at the wall mounted TV when they announced the 1981 Pulitzer Prizes. A Confederacy of Dunces won for fiction.
Carroll pointed to the TV. “Hey,” he told the bartender, “That’s my book.” The bartender bought him a drink and announced the news. “This guy just won the Pulitzer prize!” Cheers all around. Glasses clinked. Patrons came over and bought Carroll more drinks. Word spread that the guy who wrote the book that won the Pulitzer Prize was sitting right there at the bar. Drinks all around. Excitement built.
Someone opened the door to the bar and called out into the street that there was a Pulitzer prize winner inside. People flooded in to toast the “winner”. More drinks.
By the time the bar closed in the early morning, and Carroll stumbled home, he had won the Nobel.
It was the start of a great career, both for Carroll, and for the book: Today, Confederacy of Dunces has over 1,500,000 copies in print in eighteen languages.