Category: Books

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.

Road to Serfdom, 60th anniversay

BBC informs us that this is the 60th anniversary of the publication of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. In memoriam, here is a fact sheet about the book.

I have always seen huge pluses and minuses in the work. On the down side, mixed economies did not lead to fascism, communism, or totalitarianism, as Hayek had feared. On the plus side, Hayek offers his strongest and clearest case for liberty. Only rarely is political decision-making about trying to do the right thing. His analysis of the dynamics of political power remains a “public choice” classic to this day.

Thanks to Ray Squitieri for the pointer.

The National Book Awards

Edward P. Jones, who ended a 10-year absence from publishing with his novel “The Known World” (Amistad/HarperCollins), won the fiction prize of the National Book Critics Circle on Thursday night in a ceremony at New School University in Greenwich Village.

These other awards were made:

¶Paul Hendrickson, “Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy” (Knopf), for general nonfiction.

¶William Taubman, “Khrushchev: The Man and His Era” (W. W. Norton), for biography-autobiography.

¶Rebecca Solnit, “River of Shadows” (Viking), a study of high-speed photography and other 19th-century technology, for criticism.

¶Susan Stewart, “Columbarium” (University of Chicago Press), for poetry.

Studs Terkel, 91, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, oral historian and self-described champion of the uncelebrated, received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

Here is the story. I had started the Jones book and it bored me, I will try again. The Taubman book on Khruschchev is first-rate.

New trends in self-publishing

Why not go with Borders, the people who sell you the books?

“It’s easy to publish your own book!” the “Borders Personal Publishing” leaflets proclaim. Pay $4.99. Take home a kit. Send in your manuscript and $199. A month or so later, presto. Ten paperback copies of your novel, memoir or cookbook arrive.

Fork over $499, and you can get the upscale “Professional Publication” option. Your book gets an International Standard Book Number, publishing’s equivalent of an ID number and is made available on, and the Philadelphia store makes space on its shelves for five copies.

Borders is the latest traditional bookseller or publisher to branch into self-publishing using print-on-demand or P.O.D. technology. P.O.D., inheritor of the vanity press and survivor of the dot-com implosion, makes it feasible – technologically and economically – to produce one copy of a book.

Unlike e-books, which also appeared in the late 1990’s, P.O.D. self-publishing has developed into a real business, attracting involvement from the likes of Random House, Barnes & Noble and now Borders.

Forty percent of all self-published books are sold to the authors, and most of the other sixty percent are sold on-line. One company, iUniverse, has 17,000 published titles. 84 have sold more than 500 copies, and a half dozen have made it to Barnes and Noble shelves. But then again, traditional vanity presses charge you at least 8 to 10K to publish a book, with no guarantees.

Here is the full story. As Clay Shirky notes, the world is moving from the paradigm of “first filter, than publish” to “first publish, then filter.”

But does self-publishing have a bright future? Yes and no. Soon self-publishing won’t be worse than going with a mediocre press. The value of the very best certifiers will go up (in the academic market this is Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, and MIT presses, for a start), if only because the proliferation of writing makes their sorting function more important. At the same time the relative value of the middling certifiers will fall. It will become apparent they don’t offer a better product than writers operating on their own. At some point you have to ask whether the press is lending reputation to the author, or vice versa.

By the way, here is one self-published memoir which I love, the author Thelma Klein was the mother of well-known economist Daniel Klein. Yes they still have copies if you want to buy one, and they only cost a few dollars.

How The Da Vinci Code became such a hit

Yes readers love it but Barnes and Noble pushed it. The author, Dan Brown, was largely unknown in the world of publishing. But Doubleday distributed a remarkable 5000 advance reader and review copies. Internal readers in Barnes and Noble loved the story and the bookseller was on board. Advance orders from the store upped the print run from an initial 60,000 to 230,000 copies. Some Barnes and Noble stores hired greeters to tell customers about the novel. The book debuted at number one on The New York Times bestseller list and has held strong ever since.

And why should Barnes and Noble care? Competitive pressures are forcing them to promote their products to greater degree. The company faces low price competition from discounters such as Costco. If your bookstore can’t compete on price, it has to emphasize quality dimensions, such as being a source for new and hot book ideas.

The usual story suggests that price competition prevents the more expensive retailer from offering ancillary services. You could speak to the stereo salesman at the good shop but buy at the cheap shop. But the cheaper the per unit value, the more likely a store can profit from offering bundled services. It is not worth your while to hear about The da Vinci Code in Barnes and Noble and then drive to Wal-Mart to buy it. In other words, expect more concerts at your local book superstore. And expect book superstores to take a growing role in shaping consumer taste.

I read the book and was repulsed, though I will admit to finishing it, for reasons of research obviously.

There are now 6.1 million copies of The da Vinci Code in print, the title is slated to become the fastest-selling non-Harry Potter book ever, surpassing Bridges of Madison County.

Some of the above information is drawn from the March 8 issue of Fortune.

In Praise of Borders

Borders Books and Music is tapping into one of the retail industry’s few remaining new frontiers – underserved urban neighborhoods – with stores in Detroit and Chicago…

Of the two projects, the Detroit store is probably the bigger gamble, if only because of the general absence of retail activity of any kind in the downtown area.

“Retail is lacking in downtown Detroit,” said Charles Maday, the chief executive of Exclusive Realty, a Detroit commercial brokerage firm. “All the retailers left. It’s the only major city that doesn’t have even a hardware store.”

A walk around the downtown area confirms that. It is impossible to buy even a T-shirt in downtown Detroit, let alone necessities like groceries or furniture.

Here is the full article. It is hard to believe there was a time when it was debated whether book superstores are a good thing.

The cynical will note that the project developer is receiving a tax break from the city.

What ten books should an undergraduate read?

Here is what university presidents think:

1. The Bible
2. The Odyssey
3. The Republic
4. Democracy in America
5. The Iliad
6. Hamlet
7. (tie) Wealth of Nations, The Koran, The Prince
10. (tie) Federalist Papers, Don Quixote, On Liberty, Invisible Man, King Lear, War and Peace, Moby Dick, The Lexus and the Olive Tree

I admire Tom Friedman’s writings but he is in some pretty exalted company.

I would nix The Koran, which few non-Muslims get much out of, nix The Prince, which few non-Straussians understand, and downgrade Invisible Man and Lexus, both of which are too trendy. Smith is a worthy representative of economics but I would like to see some science on the list, not a classic but rather a book that undergraduates can understand. When it comes to the category of “most cited authors” (see the link, which offers other interesting measures as well), Stephen Hawking makes an appearance at eighth, just behind Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Aristotle.

The greatest irony?: Two university presidents cited What Color is Your Parachute?

Thanks to for the pointer.

Markets in everything, part II

You can now buy a personalized romance novel, featuring you and your sweetheart:

To get their names in print, customers decide on a book – most companies offer several stories to choose from – then fill out a questionnaire with details such as their love’s hair color and nickname. The information is inserted into the context of pre-fab story and presto, a personalized romance.

Don Fox of Port Saint Lucie, Fla., bought the novel “Treasure Seekers” for his wife last Valentine’s Day and included details such as the type of car he drives and his wife Josephine’s favorite radio station in the text.

“It’s something my wife and I will have forever. It’s unique,” said Fox, 43. “If you get a box of chocolates, it looks just like the box you got before that one. Then you eat it and it’s gone.”

The novels come in “mild” and “wild” versions and the plots take place in various standard romance novel locales such as a dude ranch and the white sand beaches of Tahiti (search). While their text won’t win any Pulitzer Prizes, they offer a quick read and, at $55.95, the books won’t break the bank.

Some people actually like this idea:

“It was an addictive read because it makes you the star,” said Pete Hart, 34, who received a pre-fan novel called “Vampire Kisses” from his girlfriend. “I was referred to as Pedro in the book, which is my nickname. I found that quite charming.”

Another fellow noted:

“It read more like a novel or novelette and less like a typical romance novel,” he said. “I enjoyed reading it. Besides, I was in it.”

So what is next? How about DVD movies with your face superimposed upon that of Tom Cruise?

But our world is not always taking steps forward. Ebay has been moving to take down sales of imaginary girlfriends.

If you are curious, here is part one of “Markets in everything.”

Electronic newspapers and human electronic billboards

…after years of unabashed hype and dashed hopes, truly flexible displays are at last being ramped up to commercial production. Among the uses that manufacturers foresee are electronic newspapers that can be folded or rolled when not in use and then opened to display the latest news; flexible strips for store shelves that display constantly updated price and product information; and watch bands or bracelets that offer streaming news or other information.

Some companies are even considering working the technology into lines of clothing. Forget those low-tech embroidered Gap or Gucci logos on your shirts, said Barry Young, vice president and chief financial officer for Austin-based DisplaySearch, a market research company that tracks the flat panel display industry. We’re talking about a Times Square-style news crawl moving across your chest: G . . . U . . . C . . . C . . . I.

“Now we’ll have to pay to be a billboard,” Young quipped.

Flexible-display blouses are still some years off. But a more modest rollable display — the first to be truly mass-produced — is now being churned out at the rate of 100 per week and may reach production levels of 1 million a year by the end of next year…

Here is the full story. Just think, you could read your favorite blogs on your MarginalRevolution T-shirt.

The evolution of language

On Wednesday, the Agence France Presse news service reported that author Phil Marso has published (on paper) an antismoking novella for teenagers called “Pa Sage a Taba” (Not Wise to Smoke), composed in the jambalaya of abbreviations, slang, and neologisms that teens worldwide use to send each other text messages online and via cellphone. In English, for example, 2moro is “tomorrow” and YYSSW is “Yeah, yeah, sure, sure, whatever.” So in Marso’s book, when a detective asks the villain, “6 j t’aspRge d’O 2 kologne histoar 2 partaG le odeurs ke tu me fe subir?”, what he’s actually saying (in translation) is, “What if I spray you with cologne so you can share the smells you make me suffer?” A glossary of terms is included.

Marso, who admits that his book may “annoy the guardians of the French language,” says he wrote the book as a public service announcement.

Here is the original link. The constraint, of course, is that you wish to send and receive information as rapidly as possible, given your limited typing or punching speed. If you are interested, why not try some Shakespeare?

“Luv Loks Nt Wiv T iis
Bt wiv T Mnd”

Translation: “Love looks not with the eyes
But with the mind,”

William Shakespeare

Or this one?

“2 b or nt 2 b, thts de qn”

r v upset now? I think it’s pretty neat. And to keep you busy, here is a short glossary, TMMV stands for “Your Mileage May Vary,” which refers to different luck, POS stands for “Parents Over Shoulder,” B4N.

Robert Rubin

Brad DeLong reviews the new Robert Rubin book In An Uncertain World. Rubin sounds like a brilliant guy, and I am sorry never to have met him. I like this description:

I have never seen anyone else able to guide a meeting to the consensus he wanted by occasionally raising his eyebrows and saying little other than, “That’s very interesting, very important. Now I think we should hear what X has to say.”

Rubin himself emphasizes his habit of “probabilistic thinking,” always asking such questions as, “What else might happen?” and, “What if we’re wrong?”; looking at the full range of possible outcomes rather than the most likely or the most comfortable; and recognizing that just because things came out well in one case, you didn’t necessarily make a good decision, or that just because things turned out badly, you didn’t necessarily make a bad one.

Best non-fiction books of the twentieth century

Here is a left-wing list. Here is a National Review list, with Hayek and Robert Conquest near the top. Here are two Random House lists. The critics elevate Henry Adams, William James, and Booker T. Washington. The readers favor Ayn Rand, L. Ron Hubbard, and John Lott. The readers’ list has all kind of libertarian books, including David Boaz and Tibor Machan. Thanks to the ever-interesting for the link. All of the lists make for fun browsing, especially once you start thinking about the contrasts.