How bestsellers have changed

Here are some basic facts:

The popularity of religious titles has soared. Books such as Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the first in a popular series and No. 61 for the decade, used to be sold primarily in Christian bookstores. Now they’re stacked thigh-high at discount stores such as Wal-Mart.

Self-help, always a fixture of best-seller lists, is shifting the focus from improving people’s lives to improving their health as many baby boomers pass 50. [Diet books, most of all Atkins-related, have become especially popular.]

Brand-name series grabbed a growing share of the list. Chicken Soup for the Soul begat Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul, which begat Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. All were among the decade’s 100 most popular titles.

With 12 novels on the list of 100, John Grisham staked out a nearly permanent spot on the weekly best-seller list. Only the titles changed. But if the familiar was popular, there were a few surprises. Previously unknown novelists such as Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) and Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones) ended up among the decade’s best sellers.

Fiction, led by thrillers, staged a comeback, accounting for 72% of last year’s weekly best sellers, compared with 59% in 1998.

Here are other facts of import:

1. Never have so many books been published: in the U.S. more than 1,000 new titles a week, nearly double the rate in 1993.

2. Aggregate book sales are flat.

3. “last year the average American spent more time on the Internet (about three hours a week) than reading books (about two hours a week). And…the average American adult spent more money last year on movies, videos and DVDs ($166) than on books ($90).”

4. Bestsellers (top ten in the major categories) account for only 4% of book sales.

5. Amazon, Barnes& and account for 8% of U.S. book sales.

6. Discount stores and price clubs account for 11% of U.S. book sales.

7. Humor books have fallen from 5.3% of the bestsellers market in 1995 to 0.6% today.

8. The Cliff Notes version of The Scarlet Letter outsells the real thing by 3 to 1.

9. In August dictionaries are 77% of all reference book sales. Otherwise they run less than five percent of the total.

Here is the the full story, noting that some of the facts are found in the paper edition only.

The bottom line? The book market works wonderfully. If you have any complaint, it should be with the quality of public taste.

USA Today (from Thursday) offers a list of the 100 best-selling books of the last ten years (not on-line). Once you get past Tolkien and Harry Potter, there is little to interest me. That being said, I find it easy to walk into my public libraries and every week find numerous good new books to read.


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