Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999by Michael Korda
Taking the annual bestseller lists of The Bookman (1900-1912) and Publishers Weekly (1912-1999) as his starting point, Michael Korda--who has an impressive record of writing and editing bestsellers himself--looks at the twentieth century American cultural landscape through the prism of its popular reading. The bestseller list, he notes, has much to tell us about what's on our mind, while offering tantalizing glimpses of our collective dreams, illusions, and nightmares as well.
Devoting a chapter to each decade, Korda scrutinizes the annual lists and points up the historical, social, and publishing trends that have fashioned the bestsellers and, in some cases, been fostered by them. War, censorship, political scandal, diet crazes, TV talk shows, superagents, and superstores all play a part in this story--a tale of risk-taking and safe bets, of old guards and young Turks, of net sales and gross margins, of "banned in Boston" and "soon to be a major motion picture."
With solid facts as well as personal anecdotes culled from a lifetime on the bestseller battlefield, Korda sifts though both the enduring and alluringly faddish. He assays the generations of novels, big and small, that have most appealed to us, but also recounts the long lineage of non-fiction blockbusters designed to lift our spirits, boost our self-esteem, or reduce our waistlines.
The one hundred annual bestseller lists included in Making the List are equally evocative: long-running favorite titles and one-season successes live cheek by jowl on these lists; books by authors for the ages and by those now to be found only in yesterday's society pages peacefully coexist. What may surprise the reader most, however, is how little the types of books that achieve bestseller status changed through the century.
Though Korda wisely admits that the ways of bestsellerdom are often mysterious, that no one can get it 100 percent right when it comes to doping out just what makes a bestseller, Making the List proves him to be a fascinated student, witty observer, and canny guide to the fashions and fortunes of the bestseller list--and of the reading public.
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THE BESTSELLER LIST is such a part of our lives that it's hard to imagine how
the book business, let alone authors, readers, and booksellers, could get along without it.
Of course it's a mixed blessing, in the eyes of most social and literary critics, since the bestseller list in their view tends to favor popular "storytellers" over more "literary" novelists, celebrities over the unknown, "repeat" authors who write a book every year or so over those who write more slowly or those whose first book has just been published, people with trendy medical, sociological, or self improvement schemes over writers who have spent a lifetime studying more "serious" subjects, brazen self-promoters over the shy, awkward, or physically unprepossessing, and so on.
All this is true up to a point, on the face of things. Certainly anybody packing a book bag for a long trip, as I have just done, with the intention of putting in some serious reading time, is unlikely to limit himself to the most recent big bestsellers, and most of us have favorite writers whose books never once appeared on the bestseller list. (Just so there are no secrets between us, my book bag contained the four large paperback volumes of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time; volume 3 of The Churchill War Papers, edited by Martin Gilbert; Barbara Kingsolver'sThe Poisonwood Bible, a big bestseller; about half a dozen novels by James Lee Burke in paperback; and a guide to Cairo, Alexandria, and the Nile.)
Nevertheless, as we shall see, a snobbish or elitist attitude toward the bestseller list is as unjustified as a slavish devotion to it. Many of the books I enjoy most have been big bestsellers in their time, including, for example, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, which is, along with Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (also a bestseller), one of the books I often reread. Not every book on the bestseller list is exploitive, or trashy, or propelled there by Oprah. When one looks over the bestseller lists of the past hundred years, it is amazing how many good books are there, and how many of them have survived over the decades. Of course there are also a good many clunkers, fad diet books that have long since been made obsolete by new fad diets, "as told to" autobiographies by celebrities whose luster has grown dim, and so on, but that's the point- the bestseller list, from day one, has always represented a reliable mixture of the good and the bad, of quality and trash, of literature for the ages and self-improvement schemes that now seem merely weird to the extent they're remembered at all. (Who still remembers Dr. Coué or "primal scream therapy" or "winning through intimidation"? Is there anybody out there still taking safflower seed oil capsules to lose weight, as recommended in Calories Don't Count?)
The bestseller list, in fact, presents us with a kind of corrective reality. It tells us what we're actually reading (or, at least, what we're actually buying) as opposed to what we think we ought to be reading, or would like other people to believe we're buying. Like stepping on the scales, it tells us the truth, however unflattering, and is therefore, taken over the long haul, a pretty good way of assessing our culture and of judging how, if any, we have changed.
A word about me is in order. Having been an editor at Simon & Schuster for forty three years, the bestseller list is part of my life, but not in a scholarly way. I look at it every week in much the same spirit that investors look at the list of stock prices, with a mixture of self-congratulation and self-loathing. (Well, we sure showed them with that book! How on earth did I miss buying that one?) It's the barometer of what is actually selling (and making money) in my trade, so I pay a certain amount of attention to it, naturally enough, in much the same way that a wheat farmer might follow wheat prices. On the other hand, I'm also an author, of thirteen books-five novels and eight works of nonfiction. My second book, Power!, was a #1 bestseller; my second novel, Queenie, went to #2 on the hardcover list and #1 on the paperback list. I mention all this only to make it clear that I am not just an observer of the bestseller list. I know what it feels like when a book you've published gets on the list, and I also know what it feels like when a book you've written gets on the list and even goes to #1. Perhaps equally important, I know what it feels like when your book falls off the list or doesn't make it there in the first place.
In short, we're not just talking numbers here, we're talking about people's lives, their ambitions, their success or failure. This isn't just literary history, it's a look at who we are, seen through what we read. People writing cookbooks (and books on nutrition) are fond of quoting the cliché, "You are what you eat" (actually a paraphrase of Ludwig Feuerbach's "Der Mensch ist, was er isst"-Man is what he eats), but true as that may be, it's also undeniable that you are what you read, that, as a nation and a society, the books we read, from decade to decade, tell us something about ourselves, where we've been, who we are, where we're going.
This is a project that inevitably involves a certain amount of nostalgia on my part, and on the part of anybody who has enjoyed reading over the years. Certain books will make us wish we could have the pleasure of reading them again for the first time; others will bring back fond memories, no doubt; still others may make us question our sanity, or at least that of the American reading public.
In general, I think, we are likely to be reminded again and again of Alphonse Karr's comment, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" (The more things change, the more they are the same). In every decade, from 1900 to the end of the twentieth century, people have been reliably attracted to the same kinds of books.If that were not the case, neither publishers nor booksellers could ever have made a living. Certain kinds of popular fiction always do well, as do diet books (a major staple of the trade, which also tells us something about American eating habits and American prosperity), self-help books, celebrity memoirs, sensationalist scientific or religious speculation, stories about pets, medical advice (particularly on the subjects of sex, longevity, and child rearing), folksy wisdom and/or humor, and the American Civil War.
An old publishing story relates that when Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of Random House, was asked to come up with the title for a book that was certain to be a major bestseller, he is said to have replied, "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog," but Cerf had surely borrowed the line, since publishers were telling each other this one way back when he was still in knickers, the point being that there were certain neural bumps in the consciousness of the American reading public that, when combined and triggered off, would inevitably produce a bestseller - Civil War + doctor + dog = $, as it were-and all experience has proved this formula to be correct.
(Though, interestingly enough, when a book called Lincoln's Doctor's Dog finally was published, in 1939, it didn't do much, but then it was a spoof of sorts, so it may not count. The renowned bookman Christopher Morley wrote a story under that title, too, though Professor Merrill Peterson, the Lincoln scholar, remarked that it was "not a very good story.")
On the other hand, the bestseller list is full of surprises, too. Publishers have always bemoaned the fate of the dreaded "first novel," but the bestseller lists are full of first novels by unknown authors that sold hundreds of thousands of copies - even millions of copies - and made their author, and publisher, rich and famous; Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind is the example that comes to everybody's mind. Lest anybody suppose that this doesn't happen anymore, let me mention the magic name Harry Potter. In much the same spirit, literary critics have always bemoaned the fact that serious literary fiction, particularly by first novelists, doesn't sell, but the bestseller lists often feature novels that sold tons of copies and were awarded literary prizes or good reviews (to name only two recent examples, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall).
Of course, today, people complain that the bestseller list has become institutionalized, transformed into a kind of cultural tyranny that concentrates all the energy of publishers and booksellers into the service of the top bestsellers, whatever they may be, with no attention left over for the rest. There is some truth to this, of course, particularly in a culture like ours, that divides everyone and everything into winners and losers, but on the other hand, a real-life visit to a bookseller should be enough to dispel most of the fears people have on this score. Small- to medium- size independent bookstores are usually chockablock with books that have clearly been ordered according to the often eccentric whim or taste of the owner; as for the big national chains, their mall stores and superstores carry an incredibly wide variety of books, ranging far beyond the big bestsellers of the present or even the past. Of course the top bestsellers are placed up front where they can be easily seen and found - merchants have been doing that since the beginning of time - but a bookstore is likely to carry thousands of titles, only a small percentage of which will have been bestsellers. Indeed my first reaction on entering a bookstore is to stand there awed by the sheer diversity of human taste and interest; there is always a part of me wondering, "Who on earth would buy that, and why?" Mind you, I have much the same reaction in looking through the catalogs of new books from my fellow publishers, and even through our own. Who on earth is going to read that? I ask myself over and over again at the description of yet another involuted, self-searching first novel or quirky nonfiction book or weirdly special cookbook. But that's the point. Ours is an industry defiantly determined to answer the needs of everybody who can read, however special, strange, or odd their taste and interests may be. We cling to the notion that somebody out there, God knows who, will buy that next French-Thai vegetarian fusion cookbook, this illustrated history of the world's battleships, that definitive biography of Lord Acton (yes, yes, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," but what else do you know about him, or need to know about him?), and so on.
The publishing legend Robert Gottlieb, back in the days when he was an editor at Simon & Schuster, once held an informal contest among his colleagues in the train on the way to the American Booksellers' Association convention in Washington, D.C., for the most boring title anybody could imagine for a book that might reasonably be published. The winner was Canada, Friendly Giant to the North, a joke that lost some of its savor the next day when somebody actually found a book by that title on display at another publisher's booth.
It was once said of President Lyndon B. Johnson that if he had owned a shoe store all the shoes in the store would have been in his own size, but publishers and booksellers go as far as they can in the other direction: They try to provide something for everyone. Who has ever entered a bookstore without seeing something they wanted to buy, something that catches the eye and about which one can say - albeit with a certain hesitation perhaps - "I've always wanted to read about that."
The bestseller list is therefore neither as predictable nor as dominating as its critics make it out to be. Plenty of really strange books get onto the list and stay there for a long time, and as much as booksellers may payttention to the list, they still fill their stores with books that aren't on it. Despite the inherent suspicion on the part of authors that the list is manipulated by somebody, in fact it isn't controlled by publishers any more than it is by bookstores. Of course many of the books on it are reasonably predictable- particularly novels by big, established authors-but at least half of the books on any given week's bestseller list are there to the immense surprise and puzzlement of their publishers. That's why publishers find it so hard to repeat their successes- half the time they can't figure out how they happened in the first place. For that matter, authors have even been known to make their way onto the national bestseller lists without a publisher. Wayne Dyer, one of the self-help gurus of the 1970s, sold his first book, Your Erroneous Zones, from store to store across the country out of the back of his station wagon and was already high on the list before book publishers even noticed what was happening. The late Peter McWilliams, one of the early popularizers of Transcendental Meditation, did the same. In a sense, therefore, the list is democratic and does represent, very roughly, what people are interested in at a given moment in time, as opposed to only what people are trying to sell them.
There are lists of everything these days, not just books. The bestseller list started a trend, which has spread to just about everything that can be sold or merchandized. The top movies are listed by gross and sometimes by attendance; top records ditto; the top-selling cars are listed; celebrities and models are listed and rated by scores of magazines ("The Top Ten Blondes!" "The Top Ten Divorce Lawyers in New York!" "The Top Ten Hostesses in Washington!," etc.). We score everything and everyone, but when the top ten books were first listed by sales in 1895, it was a startling innovation in retailing, though it did not immediately catch on. (For those who are interested, the list for the year 1895 included, at #9, Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, Israel Zangwill's The Master, and George du Maurier's Trilby. Zangwill is mostly remembered, if at all, as something of a cultural icon among early Zionists; The Prisoner of Zenda and Trilby, however, are still in print and can be read with great pleasure; in fact, it wouldn't be hard to imagine either one of them on the bestseller list today. The #1 book was Beside the Bonnie Briar Bush, by Ian Maclaren, which seems to have sunk without a trace at some point in the last 107 years, although it was also made into a successful play. Sic transit gloria mundi.)
As the late Alice Payne Hackett, an indefatigable lifetime student of the bestseller list, points out in her book, 70 Years of Best Sellers, the most critical factor involved in creating a bestseller list was the passage of the international copyright law in 1891. Until that time, to put it bluntly, American publishers tended to "pirate" the works of successful English and European writers - that is, to republish them over here without the author's permission and above all without paying royalties - and far from wanting to draw attention to what they were publishing, they were more inclined to keep quiet about it. (Pirating books still goes on, though these days it is mostly in the other direction: American bestsellers are pirated in Taiwan, for sale throughout the Far East.) Prior to the passage of the copyright law, American publishers were wary of boasting about how many copies they had sold of a book, for fear the author might turn up and demand his or her money, but once copyright protection was instituted and the author's right to receive royalties was recognized, boasting about sales very quickly became a way of boosting sales, and the way was open for the bestseller list to be born.
Ms. Hackett, who had very firm opinions about everything concerned with books and who, as an editor of the book industry's trade journal Publishers Weekly, was in part responsible for drawing up the PW list every week for many years, attributes the invention to Harry Thurston Peck, a reviewer, and later editor, of the literary magazine The Bookman, which first began to run a monthly list of "best sellers" in 1895.
By 1902, the "best seller list" was firmly established and consisted at first of six books. The books featured on the list were determined by calling the major bookstores in several large cities, which is pretty much the way it is done today, give or take some new technology in the shape of computers.
If Peck was in fact the man who started it all, it should be noted that he did not, right from the beginning, ask book publishers what was selling, figuring, quite rightly that any book publisher would merely take that as an opportunity to boost his own wares. That, too, has not changed with time. It is still the number of copies actually sold ("out the door," as we say in the trade) that matters, not the number of copies shipped to the stores or the number printed. Ask a book publisher how many copies a book has sold, and he or she, presuming you're not the author, will probably try to remember the size of the first printing, then double it. If you're the author, the publisher will try to remember the number of copies that were shipped and cut that in half in order to avoid encouraging you to expect a big royalty check. Say what you will about bookselling, you can at least look at the pile of copies on a given table and tell whether it's grown smaller during the course of the day, and Peck was shrewd enough to know it.
In any case, there it is - I have it in my hands - the very first bestseller list (monthly at the time), from the February issue of The Bookman: A Literary Journal, along with a whole bunch of articles that look as if they could appear (unread) in the New York Times Book Review today. Curiously enough, the list is more detailed and chatty than it is today, with far more effort to break it down by region. On the other hand, nothing on it would be likely to surprise a book buyer or a book publisher 107 years later. The Prisoner of Zenda probably sells a lot of copies today (and was made into a movie for the umpteenth time only a few years ago), and the fact that Mrs. Herrick's The Chafing Dish Supper hit the list in Chicago wouldn't raise an eyebrow, either - it sounds like exactly the kind of quick, home-entertaining cookbook that still sells well a century later.
George Du Maurier's Trilby seems to have been what we would call a real national bestseller, #1 in Chicago; New York City; Albany, N.Y.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Indianapolis, Ind.; Kansas City, Mo.; St. Paul, Minn.; Rochester, N.Y.; Toledo, Ohio; Portland, Ore.; Portland, Maine; and Washington, D.C. Perhaps understandably, Kentucky Cardinal was #1 in Louisville, Ky.-regional bestsellers were already a phenomenon -and Trilby failed to make the list altogether in Boston, perhaps because it was considered too racy.
Ms. Hackett got it exactly right in pointing to the international makeup of the list. It was far more cosmopolitan than today's, and in the area of fiction, at any rate, still dominated by British or, to a lesser degree, European writers: George Du Maurier, Anthony Hope, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Besant, etc. Still, that would change in time, as America became the dominant culture post-World War Two, and it is now relatively rare for a foreign author to hit the bestseller list, while in the rest of the world, particularly France - where resentment against American cultural imperialism extends beyond Coca-Cola, fast-food outlets, popular music, and the movies to books-intellectuals complain bitterly about the way their bestseller lists are increasingly dominated by American writers.
Interestingly enough, the March issue of The Bookman, with the second bestseller list, mentions the effect of weather on book sales for the first time, attributing lighter sales to severe snowstorms over most of the Midwest and Northeast, and also points to the importance of Valentine's Day and Easter for booksellers. A Year of Paper Dolls did well as a Valentine's Day present, for example, and probably wouldn't do badly today. Otherwise, Trilby continues to dominate the list.
(Ms. Hackett, by the way, also did authors an invaluable service by breaking bestsellers down into successful categories by subject, so if you're about to put this book down to get back to your word processor and are wondering what to write, you might want to keep in mind that in the category of "Crime and Suspense," Mickey Spillane's 1, the Jury  has sold over 6 million copies; that Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care  sold over 23 million copies; that among "Religious Novels," Charles Monroe Sheldon's In His Steps  sold over 8 million copies; and that among "Westerns," Zane Grey topped the list for many years at over 2 million with his 1928 novel Nevada. Those who suppose that poetry is dead, at least in terms of sales, should bear in mind that 101 Famous Poems, compiled by R. J. Cook , has sold over 6 million copies, about the same (moving to the category of "Juveniles") as Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz , and almost three times the number of Gene Stratton Porter's The Girl of the Limberlost .
Of course Ms. Hackett's figures were carefully compiled three decades ago, and for some of these books they may be even higher now, but it just goes to show how much it matters to pick the right category or subject when you sit down to write that book.) The intimate electronic connection between the bestseller list, bookstores, publishers, and the media that now flourishes did not of course exist at the time, but from the very beginning the idea of listing books by the number of copies they sold in a given period seemed so right that it was hard to imagine what the book trade was like before its invention. As early as 1896, one year after the first bestseller list appeared, certain trends that are still with us today became apparent. William Jennings Bryan's unsuccessful campaign for the presidency (his trademark was his speech on the evils of the gold standard, a real stem-winder that ended with the famous peroration, "Thou shalt not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!") made a bestseller out of Coin's Financial School, which attempted to explain for the layman the thorny subjects of bimetallism and the gold standard, thus beginning the long run of books about financial matters on the bestseller list and making the connection between politics and bestsellers; and the Aeronautical Annual hit the list in Boston, thus signifying the trend of new developments in science and technology to spur interest among book buyers. Another interesting fact was that Ian Maclaren had two novels on the 1896 list. Beside the Bonnie Briar Bush was still on the list a year after its appearance on the first list, and had been joined there by Maclaren's Kate Carnegie, thus making him the first of that select group of novelists whose books spend more than a year on the list, and of the even more select group with more than one title on the list at the same time. That books of real quality and literary value could hit the list was demonstrated once and for all by the appearance there of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, a classic that continues to sell today. On the other hand, some bestselling authors like Mark Twain never hit the list, because he sold many of his books himself through subscription companies (the earliest form of book club) and house-to-house sales.
Once the bestseller list had appeared in its first form, it did not exactly take the world by storm. Publishers Weekly, the industry weekly magazine, moved quickly to adopt a list of its own, though it did not start including nonfiction books in its list until much later, and the New York Times Book Review did not get around to publishing its own bestseller list as a regular, weekly feature until 1942, while the Wall Street Journal did not get around to it until 1994, just ninety-nine years after the invention of the whole thing.
Part of the problem lay, no doubt, in the historic reluctance of book reviewers and the book review media to get embroiled in the sordid question of what is selling as opposed to the question of what is worth reading. From the very beginning, serious reviewers were dismayed with the bestseller list, and the marked tendency it demonstrated of Americans failing to heed the advice and warnings of book reviewers (then as now). Even today, a reader of the New York Times Book Review can hardly fail to note the obvious difference between the books that are prominently and/or seriously reviewed, and those that appear on the list, and there was certainly an initial reluctance, undiminished by time, to "rank" books by their sales, instead of by their merit.
On the whole, the honesty of the bestseller list, wherever it appears, has seldom been criticized. From time to time complaints are heard that movie companies and individuals try to influence the list by buying copies in bulk. Certainly this has been tried - movie producers have occasionally budgeted large amounts of money and sent their underlings out to buy up books at key bookstores that are known to report their sales to the New York Times, but the difficulty of this strategy is that you have to buy all those books at retail and then what do you do with them? I have been told of certain novels, made into big movies, that have been stacked up in storage areas in movie studios, and it may be so, but not too many people - not even that many movie companies - really want to buy fifty or a hundred thousand copies of a book just to get it onto the bestseller list.
Whenever a movie producer or executive has suggested this procedure to me, I've found that they were under the impression that buying fifty or a hundred copies here and ten to twenty copies there would make a difference -when I've explained that nothing less than a well-planned (and well-financed) campaign of buying in bulk all across the country would really do the trick, they've always dropped the matter. Really, the list has been relatively scandal free, except for the occasion when William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, sued the New York Times, accusing them of deliberately keeping his novel Legion off the list, and lost his appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court. That was in 1983, and so far as I know there has been no scandal or legal problem since then.
Those interested in the minutiae of the list should run, not walk, to read John Bear's The #1 New York Times Best Seller (Ten Speed Press, 1992), which is certainly full of interesting facts (or "factoids," as my son Christopher calls recondite or useless information that you don't need to know). Bear's book will remind some readers of the famous publishing story about Alfred A. Knopf, who sent a little girl he knew a copy of a Knopf book about penguins, of which he was quite proud, and got back a letter that read: "Dear Mr. Knopf, Thank you very much for the book, which told me more about penguins than I wanted to know."
I am gratified to know that I am in the book for Power! ("First #1 book by a top executive of a publishing house and only the second #1 title with an exclamation point"), but puzzled to know what to make of the following:
- "Only book by a Finnish author to become #1: The Egyptian by Mika Waltari in 1949."
- "Just over 2% of all #1 authors have accounted for more than 14% of all #1 best sellers."
- "First #1 best seller to be banned in Boston: Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith."
- "First book by a black man to reach #1: Black Boy by Richard Wright (Harper) in 1944."
- "Top 5 authors who reached #1 before they were 35:
Amy Wallace, The Book of Lists, 22
Marion Hargrove, See Here, Private Hargrove, 23
Bill Maudlin, Up Front, 23.8
Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead, 25.4."
(Connoisseurs of factoids will be further interested to know that Ms. Wallace is the daughter of bestselling novelist Irving Wallace, one of only five authors to be #1 in fiction and nonfiction on the New York Times bestseller list.)
Obviously, there is a wealth of strange facts and coincidences in the bestseller list, but the most important thing is that it demonstrates the continuing interest of the American public in books and reading, despite the ever-growing competition from other, newer media. Up until World War Two, the only threat to the book industry was the movie business. After World War Two, the book industry had to contend with television, too, and it was widely predicted that TV would kill the book. This
did not happen. The invention of the home video player did not kill the book, nor did cable and satellite television, nor has the DVD player, nor even the home computer and the Internet. Despite these many, and increasingly high-tech, ways of spending leisure time, the book has survived and people continue to buy the big bestsellers. Possibly literacy itself is doomed in some kind of digitalized future, but for the moment, all we can say is that people are reading about as much as they ever did, that the big bestsellers are measured in numbers significantly higher than ever before, and that the bestseller list, in one form or another, is very likely to be with us, for better or for worse, for another hundred years more.
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