The blockbuster bestseller is dying

by on May 31, 2006 at 3:00 am in Books | Permalink

The average number of weeks that a new No. 1
bestseller stayed top of the hardback fiction section of the New York
Times Bestseller List has fallen from 5.5 in the 1990s, 14 in the 1970s
and 22 in the 1960s to barely a fortnight last year — according to the
study of the half-century from 1956-2005.

In the 1960s, fewer than three novels reached No. 1 in an average year; last year, 23 did.

Here is the link, the pointer was from Alex. To repeat my standard mantra, the evidence shows we are moving away from a winner-take-all society, not toward it.

1 Eric H May 31, 2006 at 7:31 am

The average number of weeks has *fallen* from 5.5 weeks to barely a fortnight?!

2 tom s. May 31, 2006 at 8:38 am

There seems to be no link. Google tells me this comes from self-publishing site The link should, I think, be to, but the site is down at the moment.

3 Adam May 31, 2006 at 10:39 am

It’s also probably worth noting that in 1960 Americans spent $7.42 billion on books (in 2004 $) and $41.4 billion in 2004. It doesn’t mean the block buster bestseller is dying; the market is just much bigger today. It would be better to be one of five “co-winners” today than being a “winner take all” in 1960. And it’s probably better to be #10 today than #1 in 1960.

Frankly, I’m confused as to what this has to do with your broader theory that we’re moving away from a winner-take-all society. It would seem that this is a statement about the concentration of profits or benefits, which most measures suggest is rising. Sure Hemingway (or whoever) stayed at the top of the charts for months in 1960 while Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Robert Ludlum trade off the top spot every two weeks in 2004. That doesn’t mean that Clancy, Grisham, and Ludlum sell fewer books and aren’t way, way, way richer…

4 tom s May 31, 2006 at 11:28 am

Adam – I’d be interested in where you got your book-expenditure figures. And whether the long term trend exists over the more recent past (say the last ten years), for which I’ve heard anecdotally that the number of books sold has stayed pretty much constant.

5 Patinator May 31, 2006 at 12:10 pm

Adam is on the right track. A few other ideas to throw darts at: inflation adjusted receipts/total number of books released, inflation adjusted amount spent on books/population.

Although it is a totally different industry and gets away from the main point of the blog, take a look at the difference in movie receipts after adjusting for inflation:

6 Half Sigma May 31, 2006 at 3:03 pm

Considering that Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, has become the richest author in history, I don’t see how we are moving away from a winner-takes-all society.

7 hey June 1, 2006 at 4:26 pm

Map purchases have been higher recently… new maps of eastern europe and central asia were needed every few months in the 90s. Things have slowed down a bit but still much more dynamism in the map market. I figure this country volatility would account for 0.05% growth in overall map spending!

Seriously, I would much rather be Tom Clancy than Hemingway (psychosis not the sole reason). Much better to need back surgery due to an overfull wallet than to deal with the depression of the tortured artist (holes in the head being very hard to treat).

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