As a group bestsellers conjure an image of lowbrow literature, of escapist fiction—bodice rippers, multi-generation epics, courtroom melodramas, and beach novels. Although books of all sorts, including nonfiction, cartoon anthologies, and genuine literature routinely make the bestseller lists in America, bestsellers have always been dismissed as popular reading. In 80 Years of Best Sellers authors Alice Payne Hackett and James Henry Burke assert that, "Best-selling books are not always the best in a critical sense, but they do offer what the reading public wants," and the truth is that bestseller status is more often associated with Danielle Steele than Sinclair Lewis, even though both have published best-selling novels.
Tracking and reporting the best-selling books in America officially began in 1895. Publishing of all sorts experienced a boom in the 1890s for a variety of reasons, including cheaper paper, substantial improvements in the printing press, a high literacy rate, better public education systems, and an increase in book stores and public libraries. Popular tastes were also shifting from educational books and other nonfiction to works of fiction; an 1893 survey of public libraries showed that the most frequently borrowed books were novels, which at that time were largely historical fiction with overtones of adventure, e.g. The Last of the Mohicans, Lorna Doone, The House of the Seven Gables. The first list of best-selling novels in America appeared in a literary magazine titled The Bookman in 1895. The bestselling novel that year was Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush by one Ian Maclaren. Although the phrase "best seller" was not used by The Bookman at this time; it seems to have been coined about a decade later by Publishers Weekly in an interview with a successful book dealer. Bookman referred to the novels on its first list as being sold "in order of demand" and started referring to "Best Selling Books" in 1897. Publishers Weekly began to run its own list of bestsellers in 1912, by which time the term was in general usage. The first several bestseller lists were dominated by European novels, with an average of only two or three American novels per year. While many European authors were undoubtedly popular with American readers and European settings were more glamorous, the primary reason that there were few highly successful American novelists was U.S. copyright law, which prior to 1891 had made it far less expensive to publish books written by Europeans than by Americans.
The existence of bestseller lists had an immediate effect on American publishers, who began to devise ways to promote their novels and ensure them bestseller status. The novel The Honorable Peter Stirling, written by Paul Leceister Ford and published in 1897, was selling very poorly until its publisher spread rumors that the book was based on President Grover Cleveland; the book saw a drastic increase in readership and 228,000 copies were sold that year. The 1904 novel The Masquerade was the first book to be published without an author credit; speculation as to who "anonymous" might be—it was novelist Katherine Cecil Thurston—increased public awareness of the novel and it was one of the top ten sellers of its year. The gimmick of publishing an anonymous book was used repeatedly throughout the century; the success of Primary Colors in 1996 indicates that it has remained an effective marketing device.
Two significant literary genres made their first appearances on the list in 1902. Owen Wister's The Virginian —which became a genuine publishing phenomenon over time, remaining continuously in print for over thirty years—was at the height of its success in 1902. Booksellers were ordering one thousand copies per day. The Virginian created a market for western novels; western fiction became a staple of the list when Zane Grey's The Lone Star Ranger was published in 1915 and the western audience has never truly disappeared. Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles was not just the first Sherlock Holmes book to achieve bestseller status but was the first work of detective fiction to do so as well. The first American suspense novelist to reach the year's top ten list was Mary Roberts Rinehart in 1909. Not all turn of the century bestsellers were escapist fiction, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the famous muckraking exposé of the American meat packing industry, became a bestseller in 1906.
When Publishers Weekly began publishing its own list of bestsellers in 1912, it separated nonfiction from fiction. A third category, simply titled "war books," was added for the duration of World War I. Books about the European conflict sold extremely well and appear to have created a larger market for nonfiction reading in general, since sales of nonfiction books increased in post-World War I America. A similar increase occurred after World War II, when self-help books began to appear regularly on the bestseller lists. Emily Post's Etiquette, first published in 1923, demonstrated that a nonfiction bestseller can be recognized as a definitive reference source and remain in print almost indefinitely
Since the 1910s, bestseller status has been determined in the same way. Several publications, most notably Publishers Weekly and more recently the New York Times Book Review, publish weekly lists of the ten best-selling fiction and nonfiction books in America. The lists originally referred only to cloth, or hardbound, books; separate lists for paperbacks were added in the 1960s. Information is gathered from book stores around the United States, so the list of bestsellers does refer to books sold, not just books distributed (as was the case with the record industry for decades). Because most books stay on the list for multiple weeks, approximately forty-five to fifty books reach either list per year. The method of determining which books are bestsellers has been criticized. The lists reflect what is selling well at any given week, so that a book that sold slowly but steadily, such as The Betty Crocker Cookbook, which is one of the highest selling books of all time, might never appear on a bestseller list. Likewise, it is possible for an author to sell millions of books during a career without ever having one be designated a bestseller. Most of the sales figures are gathered from larger book stores so that smaller stores, which frequently have more literary clientele, have little input into the lists. Substantial advance publicity from a publisher can almost certainly boost sales for a week or two, creating an artificial bestseller. Finally, book club editions are not taken into account when compiling the lists; the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild, founded in 1926 and 1928 respectively, have accounted for a large percentage of book sales each year, as have many other book clubs and mail order sources, all without being included in the bestseller statistics. Still, the bestseller lists remain a fairly accurate barometer of what America is reading at any given time.
Even by the 1920s, certain patterns were beginning to emerge on the lists. There was the phenomenon known as "repeaters"—authors who could be counted on to produce one best-selling book after another. Edna Ferber in the 1930s, Mickey Spillane in the 1950s, Harold Robbins in the 1960s, and John Grisham in the 1990s were all repeaters whose publishers knew that practically anything they wrote would become a bestseller. John O'Hara took the concept of repeating to its extreme; not only did he write a bestseller every year or two for most of his career but his publisher, Random House, always released the book on the same date, Christmas Eve, to build a steady market. "Repeaters" are important to publishers, who need certain and dependable sales successes, so the practice of paying large advances to such authors is common and widespread. In contrast to the repeaters, some authors have only one or two bestsellers and never produce another. This phenomenon can be hard to explain. Some authors only produce one novel: Margaret Mitchell never wrote another after the enormous success of Gone with the Wind ; Ross Lockridge committed suicide shortly after the publication of Raintree County. But others try to repeat their earlier successes and fail, so that while someone like Kathleen Winsor may write many books during her lifetime, only Forever Amber is successful. Bestsellers are very attuned to popular taste; an author has to be strongly in synch with national attitudes and concerns to produce a bestseller. After a few years have passed, author and society might not be so connected. Another phenomenon may affect both repeaters and authors of solitary bestsellers: fame for best-selling writers and their books can be remarkably short-lived. For every Daphne du Maurier, well remembered years after her death, there is a George Barr McCutcheon; for every Peyton Place there is a Green Dolphin Street. Decades ago Rex Beach and Fannie Hurst were household names, each with multiple bestsellers; someday Dean Koontz and Jackie Collins might have lapsed into obscurity. Again, this might be attributed to the popular nature of the bestseller; best-selling novels are frequently so topical and timely that they tend to become dated more rapidly than other fiction. They are rarely reprinted after the initial burst of popularity is over and slip easily from the public memory. Of course, on some occasions when the novel remains well known the author might not, so that everybody has heard of Topper but no one remembers Thorne Smith and everybody is familiar with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn while few recall it was written by Betty Smith.
Specific genres of books are more likely to become bestsellers and since the beginning of the bestseller lists, certain categories have dominated. Among the most common bestseller types are the historical novel, the roman á clef, the exposé novel, and the thriller.
The first best American bestsellers were long romantic novels that provided escapist reading to their audiences while appearing to be at least slightly educational; all were set in the past and most were set in Europe. Gradually American settings began to dominate, particularly the American frontier, but the historical novel has remained an extremely popular type of fiction and has changed relatively little since its earliest appearance. There is usually some romance at the core, with complications that keep it from being resolved for hundreds of pages. The novel is often built around a significant historical event; the Civil War has been an especially popular setting. Great attention is given to detail and many historical novelists spend years researching an era before writing about it. Some variations of the historical novel would include the multi-generational saga, which follows a family for several decades and generations, such as Edna Ferber's Cimarron ; the religious epic, such as Charles Sheldon's In His Steps, a fictionalized life of Christ that introduced the phrase "What would Jesus do?"; and the historical adventure, as seen in much of Kenneth Roberts's many fictional accounts of westward expansion.
Literally "book with a key," the roman á clef is a work of fiction that is obviously based on real people; the "key" is determining who was the inspiration for the novel. Obviously, for the book to be successful it has to be easy for the reader to guess who it is supposed to be about; it takes no great deductive ability to realize, for example, that the presidential widow in Jacqueline Susann's Dolores is based on Jacqueline Onassis. Harold Robbins is the most successful author of the roman á clef, having written about Harold Hughes (The Carpetbaggers), Lana Turner (Where Love Has Gone), and Hugh Hefner (Dreams Die First), among others. More literary examples of the roman á clef include two genuine bestsellers, Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry, based on Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson; and Robert Penn Warren's fictionalized account of Huey Long, All the King's Men.
The exposé novel examines a major American institution and purports to tell readers exactly how it works; of course, these novels always contain copious amounts of sex and intrigue no matter how dull their subject matter might appear. Arthur Hailey's Airport, for example, presents a romantic triangle between a pilot, his wife, and his pregnant mistress (one of his flight attendants); a bomb on board the plane; and an emergency landing in a snowstorm. Hailey is the recognized leader of the exposé novel, having also written Wheels, Hotel, and The Moneychangers, among others. Some exposé novels have the added attraction of being written by someone who actually worked within the industry, giving them an insider's view which they presumably pass along to their readers. Joseph Wambaugh, the police officer turned author is perhaps the best known of these. It has become fairly common to hire a celebrity to use their name on an exposé novel, which is then written in collaboration with a more professional author, as was done with Ilie Nastase's The Net and model Nina Blanchard's The Look.
Ever since The Hound of the Baskervilles, mysteries and suspense novels of some sort have been common on the list. It was not until the publication of John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1964, however, that publishers recognized thrillers as a popular fiction form. Thrillers can be distinguished from mysteries by the fact that there is no puzzle to solve; the appeal of the novel lies in waiting to see what will happen to the characters. Crime novels like those of Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty) are frequently categorized as thrillers, but so are courtroom novels like John Grisham's The Firm and Scott Turow's Above Suspicion ; technology based works like Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October ; Lawrence Sanders's (The First Deadly Kiss) and Thomas Harris's (Silence of the Lambs) dissections of serial murder; and war novels like Len Deighton's Bomber.
Beginning in the 1970s there were fewer privately owned publishing houses; many have merged and some have been bought buy larger conglomerates. Bestsellers are now seen as part of a corporation's synergy; that is, a best-selling novel is part of a package that includes movie and/or television adaptations. Television in particular has proven an avid customer for adaptation rights; as fewer bestsellers are made into motion pictures, the television medium, which can provide longer running times that presumably allow more faithful adaptations, has produced hundreds of made for television movies and mini-series from best-selling novels. Television's interest in the bestseller can be traced to ABC's highly regarded production of Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man in 1976. Given the variety of businesses that may now be contained under one corporate umbrella, it is not uncommon for one conglomerate to publish a book in hardcover, publish the paperback edition as well, and then produce the film or television adaptation. In fact, many publishing houses take such a possibility into consideration when reviewing manuscripts.
The most popular works within any society would not necessarily be its best; nevertheless, the reading habits of the American public say much about its culture. If Irving Wallace, Mario Puzo, Janet Daly, and Leon Uris are not the greatest authors of the twentieth century, they have still provided millions of readers with a great deal of pleasure. The best-selling novel might better be evaluated not as a work of literature but as a significant cultural byproduct, an artifact that reveals to subsequent generations the hopes and concerns of the past.
Boca, Geoffrey. Best Seller. New York, Wyndham Books, 1981.
Hackett, Alice Payne and James Henry Burke. 80 Years of Best Sellers, 1895-1975. New York, Bowker, 1977.
Hart, James D. The Popular Book. Berkely, University of California Press, 1961.
Sutherland, John. Bestsellers. London, Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1981.