Making the Bestseller List
The Making of American Bestsellers
Ambivalence surrounds the bestseller list. Is it a tool to measure sales or to promote them? That question plagues booksellers, academics, authors, and publishers alike. One thing is sure: everyone would like to see his book included. These rankings make or break novels and authors, and are perceived as a barometer of American cultural life. An innovation of the book trade, the bestseller list continues to be used by the industry to market books. To the dismay of cultural critics, the lists wield enormous power. Whether as booksellers, authors, publishers, or readers, we all play a part in the creation and continuing importance of the bestseller list.
How is the Bestseller List Compiled?
Bestseller lists influence book sales and mean big business. It is therefore no surprise that much secrecy surrounds the actual compilation in an effort to keep the lists accurate. Publishers Weekly and the New York Times determine their weekly lists by polling bookstores, recording the sales of hardbound books. The results are combined annually in Publishers Weekly to produce a ranking of the top ten bestselling works of popular fiction. These lists exclude the novels printed by book clubs, the number of paperback sales, and the count of print runs. To discover books that have sold the greatest number overall, readers must turn to books such as Hackett's 80 Years of Best Sellers with lists which combine hardbound and paperback sales to determine rankings.
The First Bestseller Lists
"Sales of Books During the Month." The Bookman:
A Literary Journal 1.1 (1895): 64-65.
The Bookman published the first list of bestselling books in 1895.
"The Bestselling Books, Here and Elsewhere." The
New York Times Book Review 9 Aug. 1942, section 6: 8. Facsimile.
The first weekly bestseller list appeared in the New York Times Book Review in 1942.
Important Events in the Making of Bestsellers: A Chronology
1891- The international copyright act is passed ending the pirating and cheap sales of British books in the U.S.
1895 - The book trade magazine The Bookman publishes lists of monthly regional sales of popular books.
1913 - Publishers Weekly begins to feature "New Record of Best Sellers," based on actual sales reports from booksellers from cities in each region of the country.
1926 - The Book-of-the-Month Club is founded.
1939 - The paperback imprint Pocket Books is founded, bringing inexpensive books to the mass market.
1942 - A list of bestsellers begins to appear weekly in the New York Times Book Review.
1970s and 80s- Large publishing and media conglomerates are formed. They focus on profitable authors who sign multiple-book deals. Bestsellers become media packages. Time-Warner and CBS now have extensive publishing holdings.Bookstore chains, such as B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, appear in shopping malls, marketing books on a massive scale. The superstores of Barnes and Noble represent the most recent incarnation of the consolidation of bookstores. Today, these chains influence the publishing industry.
Charting Trends in the Bestseller List: How Have Our Reading Habits Changed over Time?
Today we remember few of the bestsellers from 1913, but we do recognize the types of fiction. Romantic and historical novels dominate, and in the popularity of Pollyanna, we see an early example of a wildly successful series of children's books, not unlike the Harry Potter series. Readers in this era especially favored the regional fiction of Gene Stratton-Porter and the novels by the American writer Winston Churchill. Although on the cusp of World War I, none of these books expresses any sense of the impending war in Europe.
Top Ten Fiction Bestsellers of 1913
- The Inside of the Cup
- V.V.'s Eyes
Henry Sydnor Harrison
- The Judgment House
Sir Gilbert Parker
- Heart of the Hills
John Fox, Jr.
- The Amateur Gentleman
- The Woman Thou Gavest Me
Eleanor H. Porter
- The Valiants of Virginia
Hallie Erminie Rives
- T. Tembarom
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Out of the ten books on this list, three contain religious themes. In addition, we see irreverent but uplifting novels by John P. Marquand and William Saroyan. The few titles that remain familiar to us have survived primarily because of a well-known movie version. In this time, war books appeared on a separate list.
Top Ten Fiction Bestsellers of 1943
- The Robe
Lloyd C. Douglas
- The Valley of Decision
- So Little Time
John P. Marquand
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
- The Human Comedy
- Mrs. Parkington
- The Apostle
- Hungry Hill
Daphne du Maurier
- The Forest and the Fort
- The Song of Bernadette
In contrast to 1913, this list includes few women writers, but we do start recognizing authors' names. For example, the blockbuster Jonathan Livingston Seagull appeared on the annual bestseller list for two years. Several of the titles stand out for their literary merit, and we encounter the well-known authors Frederick Forsyth, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, and Graham Greene. Robert Ludlum first appeared on this 1973 list. His thrillers continued to make the lists until his death in 2001.
Top Ten Fiction Bestsellers of 1973
- Jonathan Livingston Seagull
- Once Is Not Enough
- Breakfast of Champions
- The Odessa File
- The Hollow Hills
- Evening in Byzantium
- The Matlock Paper
- The Billion Dollar Sure Thing
Paul E. Erdman
- The Honorary Consul
To solve the problem of how to market and distribute enough books to attain economies of scale in the publishing business, Harry Scherman developed The Book-of-the-Month Club as a merchandizing scheme in 1926. The original prospectus on display appealed to readers who felt out of the loop in remote areas and to those who were too busy to keep track of the books they wanted to read. Addressing potential subscribers, Scherman asked, "Why is it that so many wideawake people, who know the joys of this fine camaraderie that exists among readers of new books, still neglect time and again to 'keep up' with the best that is published?" Scherman promised to help readers redress this void by offering the expertise of well-known critics and writers to help choose "the best" books available. His selection committee consisted of Henry Seidel Canby, Heywood Broun, Dorothy Canfield, Christopher Morley, and William Allen White, who together would make the book-of-the-month selection for subscribers. Ultimately, for readers seeking expert guidance on what to read, The Book-of-the-Month Club became the way "to keep abreast of the best books of the day." Although book club purchases were not included in bestseller annual lists, Scherman's innovation ensured that a selected work attained bestseller status.
A continuation of Scherman's concept, though not motivated by profit, Oprah's Book Club advises readers on what to read. However, unlike earlier clubs, the power of Oprah's television presence and the sheer number of her viewers result in millions of additional sales, as seen when Oprah recommended Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible on June 23, 2000. By this point in time, when Oprah chooses a book, the publisher immediately rushes an extra million copies into production. As a result, Oprah Winfrey has become one of the most influential people in the book industry. With a word, she catapults a book onto the bestseller list.
The Broken Moon Press, a small publisher in Seattle, published Rebecca Wells' first book, Little Altars Everywhere. Although having limited publicity, the book sold so well that HarperCollins acquired her next book, Divine Secrets.
Charles Frazier grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, where he set his first novel. It became a critical and commercial success by the word-of-mouth recommendation of its readers, who were drawn to the authenticity of its place and characters. Inspired by Frazier's investigation into his great-great-uncle's journey home from the Civil War, Cold Mountain won the National Book Award in 1997.
The First Bestselling African-American Writer
Frank Yerby wrote over thirty books with the purpose of entertaining the reading public. The Foxes of Harrow proved a bestseller in 1946, and The Vixens reached the 1947 list.