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Bestsellers (and ‘Bestsellerism’)

(and ‘Bestsellerism’), The Bookman, Publisher's Weekly, In His Steps, Gone with the Wind

are particularly associated with the twentieth-century American book trade. The practice of systematically identifying certain books as noteworthy for the speed and volume of their sales began with the American monthly magazine The Bookman, and its editor, Harry Thurston Peck, in 1895. The magazine was the first to list a selection of new titles, ‘in order of demand’. In the 1890s, the fiction bestseller lists of The Bookman were dominated by British titles. The earliest recorded use of the noun ‘bestseller’ is 1902. In 1912 the American trade magazine Publisher's Weekly began issuing a bestseller list, which has been authoritative in America ever since. A year later the magazine began dividing bestsellers into fiction and non-fiction (although the term ‘bestseller’ automatically evokes a certain kind of novel), and since 1913 further subdivisions have emerged.

Examining Publisher's Weekly records in 1945, Alice Payne Hackett determined that the all-time bestseller was Charles Monroe Sheldon's crude Christian epic In His Steps (1895) with cumulative sales over sixty years of over eight million. Gone with the Wind (1936) had clocked up three and a half million in nine years (these figures disregarded Book Club sales). Undertaking a similar exercise in 1965, Hackett calculated that Grace Metalious's steamy saga of sex in a New England suburb, Peyton Place (1956), had sold almost ten million in less than ten years. Lawrence's newly publishable (since 1959) Lady Chatterley's Lover had achieved sales of 6.3 million, and Harold Robbins's fictionalized, and sensationalized, account of the life and loves of Howard Hughes, The Carpetbaggers (1960), came in at 5.5 million. In 1975 Hackett discovered that with the paperback ‘revolution’ of the late 1960s, a further exponential growth had occurred. There were now novels like Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969), Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971), and Erich Segal's Love Story (1970) which sold ten million or more in five years. In the 1980s and 1990s, despite competition from other media, sales of bestselling novels continued to rocket—in both hardback and paperback. In the 1980s, Stephen King's novels were routinely brought out in first print runs of a million in the expensive form, and many millions in cheap form.

Over the decades, bestseller lists have also begun to emerge in regional newspapers and in Sunday supplements (for example, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune). But nationally, the Publisher's Weekly and New York Times lists dominate. In Britain (and Europe generally) there was considerable resistance to bestseller lists which, it was felt, distorted customers' buying habits, creating a ‘stampede’ mentality and inhibiting the range of bookshops' stock. The first reliable lists were introduced in England by The Bookseller and The Sunday Times in the mid-1970s. They are now an established feature of the British book trade, which has in other ways accommodated to American high-pressure salesmanship (notably in the practice of discounting the sales price of books which figure on the lists).

‘Literature’ has an uneasy relationship with bestsellerism. In Britain, particularly, the machinery involved has been seen as culturally pernicious (this view was put forward very influentially by Q. D. Leavis in Fiction and the Reading Public, 1932). None the less, a number of British writers (notably Graham Greene, with his ‘entertainments’) achieved bestseller status. In America the literary quality of supersellers tended to be low, and their content bland, during the inter-war years. An exception was John Steinbeck's angry muck-racking The Grapes of Wrath, which was the top novel in America in 1939. A significant breakthrough occurred in 1958, when Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago made number I, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita number 2 on the American list. Thereafter it was unusual for ‘quality’ bestsellers to be absent. Some, like Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (number 2 in 1963), or any of Norman Mailer's early novels, were sexually ‘frank’, exploiting the freedom achieved by the acquittal of Lady Chatterley in 1959 (1960 in the UK). But also the elevated level of bestsellers would seem to reflect the huge investments in education undertaken by the USA and Britain after the Second World War. At times, the lists seem to reflect two publics: in 1973, for instance, the topselling novel was Jacqueline Susann's Once Is not Enough, and the third title, Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. In Britain in the 1990s, although sales are proportionately much lower than in America, novelists like Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, and A. S. Byatt have topped the bestseller lists.

Various definitions of what a ‘bestseller’ is have been attempted. Frank Luther Mott's calculus (‘a total sale equal to one per cent of the current population of the continental United States in the decade in which it was published’) is statistically neat, but comes up with some odd results, since it minimizes rate of sale. Bestsellers are books of the year (sometimes of the month, or week), not the decade. The best working definition of a bestseller is a work which appears in the bestseller lists. Historical surveys of twentieth-century bestsellers can be found in F. L. Mott's Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (1947); Alice Payne Hackett's regular updates to her initial Fifty Years of Best Sellers, 1895–1945 (1945); and Bowker's Annual of Library and Book Trade Information which summarizes the year's bestsellers in America. There is nothing equivalent in the UK, although Alex Hamilton in the Guardian newspaper and the London Evening Standard Diary column attempt an annual round-up of the year's bestsellers.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais Biography to Michel Bibaud Biography