Last Wednesday, I suggested that there was no golden era where everyone was reading complex literary fiction.
Is that actually true? Did past readers have more refined taste in fiction than we do now?
Here’s a list of the bestselling novel by year from 1900 to the present (source), along with the books published that same year that were part of Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels.
What do you make of this list?
1900: To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston
Also published: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
1901: The Crisis by Winston Churchill (note: the American novelist)
Also published: Kim by Rudyard Kipling
1902: The Virginian by Owen Wister
Also published: Wings of the Dove by Henry James
1903: Lady Rose’s Daughter by Mary Augusta Ward
Also published: Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler, The Ambassadors by Henry James, The Call of the Wild by Jack London
1904: The Crossing by Winston Churchill
Also published: The Golden Bowl by Henry James, Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
1905: The Marriage of William Ashe by Mary Augusta Ward
Also published: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
1906: Coniston by Winston Churchill
1907: The Lady of the Decoration by Frances Little
Also published: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
1908: Mr. Crewe’s Career by Winston Churchill
Also published: A Room With a View by E.M. Forster, The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
1909: The Inner Shrine by Basil King
1910: The Rosary by Florence Barclay
Also published: Howard’s End by E.M. Forster
1911: The Broad Highway by Jeffrey Farnol
Also published: Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
1912: The Harvester by Gene Stratton Porter
1913: The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill
Also published: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
1914: The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright
1915: The Turmoil by Booth Tarkington
Also published: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford, The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
1916: Seventeen by Booth Tarkington
1917: Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H.G. Wells
Also published: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
1918: The U.P. Trail by Zane Grey
Also published: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
1919: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by V. Blasco Ibanez
Also published: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
1920: The Man of the Forest by Zane Grey
Also published: The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
1921: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis*
1922: If Winter Comes by A.S.M. Hutchison
Also published: Ulysses by James Joyce
1923: Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1924: So Big by Edna Ferber
Also published: A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
1925: Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs
Also published: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
1926: The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine
Also published: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
1927: Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Also published: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder*
Also published: Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley
1929: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Also published: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
1930: Cimarron by Edna Ferber
Also published: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
1931: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Also published: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Also published: Light in August by William Faulkner, Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1933: Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen
1934: Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen
Also published: I, Claudius by Robert Graves, Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara, Tender is the Nighta by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
1935: Green Light by Lloyd C. Douglas
Also published: Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell
1936: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1937: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1938: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Also published: U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
1939: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck*
Also published: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
1940: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
Also published: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Native Son by Richard Wright
1941: The Keys of the Kingdom by A.J. Cronin
1942: The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel
1943: The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
1944: Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
1945: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
Also published: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Loving by Henry Green
1946: The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier
Also published: Animal Farm by George Orwell, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
1947: The Miracle of the Bells by Russell Janney
Also published: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
1948: The Big Fisherman by Lloyd C. Douglas
Also published: The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
1949: The Egyptian by Mika Waltari
Also published: 1984 by George Orwell, The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
1950: The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson
1951: From Here to Eternity by James Jones*
Also published: A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
1952: The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain
Also published: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1953: The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
Also published: Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
1954: Not as a Stranger by Morton Thompson
Also published: Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
1955: Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
Also published: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy
1956: Don’t Go Near the Water by William Brinkley
1957: By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens
Also published: On the Road by Jack Kerouac, The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
1958: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
1959: Exodus by Leon Uris
Also published: Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
1960: Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
1961: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
Also published: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipul, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
1962: Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter
Also published: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
1963: The Shoes of Fisherman by Morris L. West
1964: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre
1965: The Source by James A. Michener
1966: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Also published: The Magus by John Fowles, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
1967: The Arrangement by Elia Kazan
Also published: The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever
1968: Airport by Arthur Hailey
1969: Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth*
Also published: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
1970: Love Story by Erich Segal
Also published: Deliverance by James Dickey
1971: Wheels by Arthur Hailey
Also published: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
1972: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
1973: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
1974: Centennial by James A. Michener
1975: Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow*
1976: Trinity by Leon Uris
1977: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
1978: Chesapeake by James A. Michener
1979: The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
Also published: A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipul, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
1980: The Covenant by James A. Michener
1981: Noble House by James Clavell
Also published: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
1982: E.T. the Extraterrestrial Storybook by William Kotzwinkle
1983: Return of the Jedi Storybook by Joan D. Vinge
Also published: Ironweed by William Kennedy
1984: The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
1985: The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel
1986: It by Stephen King
1987: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
1988: The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy
1989: Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
1990: The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel
1991: Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” by Alexandra Ripley
1992: Dolores Claiburne by Stephen King
1993: The Bridges of Madison County by James Robert Waller
1994: The Chamber by John Grisham
1995: The Rainmaker by John Grisham
1996: The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
1997: The Partner by John Grisham
1998: The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
1999: The Testament by John Grisham
2000: The Brethern by John Grisham
2001: Desecration by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
2002: The Summons by John Grisham
2003: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
2004: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
2005: The Broker by John Grisham
2006: For One More Day by Mitch Albom
2007: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
2008: The Appeal by John Grisham
2009: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
2010: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
2011: The Litigators by John Grisham
2012: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
*Bestseller also on list of Top 100 novels
Art: The Bibliophilist’s Haunt or Creech’s Bookshop by William Fettes Douglas
Matthew MacNish says
Why do the additional books completely disappear over the last couple decades?
Nathan Bransford says
100 best of lists tend to favor the past.
Matthew MacNish says
Ah, I see.
There seems to be a definite trend of commercial books overtaking literary ones, but perhaps that's the view through a rose-tinted lens?
Lisa Lane says
I think that list about sums it up. People's tastes have indeed changed over the decades, and not for the better.
Kristi Lea says
Has commercial overtaken literary because our tastes have changed, or because accessibility to books has changed (i.e. are we more literate as a society now?), or because of a shift in thinking by publishers about what they are willing to sell, or was what is considered "literary" now was considered "commercial" back then? Or because of bias by listmakers (current and historical) whose methods of collecting data may or may not show an accurate picture?
Actually, what I take away from the list is that it is good to be a male writer. I count 24 years where the author was female (I might be under-counting slightly…I did not go research some of the folks who use their initials to see which are male and female). It is especially good to be John Grisham, who has the longest winning streak (I suspect JK Rowling beats him out when adding all 7 HP books together, but he held the title for what, a decade?)
Oh. Best SELLING. I finally understand.
During those Grisham/King years, the best SELLING albums of those years included Hootie and the Blowfish, Spice Girls and Billy Ray Cyrus.
Who says zeitgeist can't blow an ill wind from time to time?
Great point Kristi. I definitely think access is a key factor, and I don't think that's a bad thing. Shakespeare worked on the same side of the river as the bear-baiting pits, and his plays are filled with dirty jokes and plots lifted from older stories (the norm at the time!). The classics of the Greco-Roman era would now be considered fantasy, not literature, and they are full of the melodrama and lewd plot points that now fuel soap operas. In both eras these stories were available cheaply to the masses and not just people who could afford bound copies.
I actually think the nineteenth-early-twentieth century British/American preoccupation with introspection and realism is the literary fluke.
The "past" readers actually had to read. No TV or movie versions of those famous stories. Look at the crap of late that constitutes "fiction."
Cole Aabbott says
Interesting that 50 years ago it was the Spy Who Came in from the Col.d
I think it's also related to the evolution of the human race and life as we know it. Things that mattered back in the day compared to today and the transformation of the way we live our lives. Reading older books has a certain charm about them because of the language used and the way they lived.
One thing I've noticed from historical dramas, including movies, set in far-flung eras (as in Tudor England of the 16th century, also the era of Shakespeare, to the 19th century of Charles Dickens) is that the people/characters are portrayed as speaking in a progressively less verbose and articulate manner through the centuries up until the modern era. Is this trend portrayed in the entertainment media accurate, or were the characters focused upon in by-gone eras those who had the advantage of the best education and stimulating social circles – especially in Shakespearean literature.
For me, THe Good Earth (winning in 1931-1932), and The Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man (1917), Sons And Lovers, and Gone With The Wind (1936-1937) were all simply written. I thought them easy to read without complex language to stumble over. But perhaps – to one degree or another – they contain more depth of characterization, introspection and abstraction than some of the more recent titles that have topped the best seller lists?
SC Author says
This is incredibly, incredibly interesting. We keep looking and whining about the best seller list while there almost certainly is a writer, this instant, that will be called a classic-writer in the future! We just don't look at non-bestelling books, and we find great literature in the aftermath. An incredible, incredible, and revealing post. The golden era is not dead at ALL.
Sheena-kay Graham says
The definition of great fiction has changed over the years. Some for the better and some for the worst (cringes).
This might be off topic, but I think it's interesting anyway. I personally know a lot of people who are reading older classics now thanks to e-books. And how is that possible you ask?
Well, a lot of web sites like Kobo offer free reads, and people who are just starting to learn how to read e-books are taking advantage of those free reads and rediscovering classics like "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Steve MC says
Just a couple weeks ago I looked up the bestsellers of the ‘80s, when I was in college, and found a list with the top ten for each year.
And in practically each year you find romances by Sidney Sheldon, Judith Krantz, Danielle Steel, and Jackie Collins, or thrillers by Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, John le Carre, and Tom Clancy.
But for Pulitzer’s? Norman Mailer, John Updike, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Anne Tyler.
Still, I love le Carre. And for 1983, I never could get through Ironweed, but I still have my Return of the Jedi Storybook. :p
Donna Hosie says
That John Grisham bloke seems to be quite popular!
David Biddle says
My God. It all went in the crapper in 1980. It is so obvious it's like a slap in the face. In fact, it is a slap in the face. That was my graduating year from college. It was also, well, if you were around then, you know the history of what happened very well. Very sad.
what a great list, and esp liked the insertion of other notable work that year that wasn't a best seller
maybe a top ten list for each year (as one commentator above mentioned they had seen for the 80s)?
thanks so much 😉
Dom Purvis says
Nathan – do you have a sense of the results if you looked at English language (ie not just US) sales?
Terin Tashi Miller says
There appear to be some flaws in the data.
For instance, "The Robe," by Lloyd C. Douglas, appears to have been either published twice, or popular twice, 10 years apart: in 1943, and 1953.
Also, Ulysses was NOT published in the U.S. at first. In fact, it was published in Paris by Ford Maddox Ford's friend and bookstore owner Sylvia Beach, who was a Joyce fan.
Lastly, other than The Great Gatsby, note NONE of Fitzgerald's earlier work, including This Side of Paradise, which made him a near instant celebrity, in 1920.
Sales do not necessarily determine taste, nor discernment amoung the reading public. They never have. I have always had the same problem with "box office" receipts from movies.
Just because someone bought a book, or a ticket, doesn't mean they LIKED the movie or book. It just means it was purchased.
Also, how many sales are considered "bestselling" in any given year?
In 1918, Pearl Curren rose from obscurity to literary fame with her purported taking dictation for novels etc via a ouija board for Patience Worth.
That sort of sensationalist popularity doesn't appear noted, because Modern Library doesn't consider her books worth mentioning…
To really be accurate, one would have to look at comparisons, and actual print runs, and reviews, etc.
I'm just sayin'…(as the child of two anthropology professors).
I'm surprised I'm the first one to comment about how man-heavy the list is!
Nice points, Kristi.
Awesome post, Nathan. I'm actually a bit blown away by your research and the fact that you linked everything. That is just terrific, thank you.
I'm not familiar with all the books, but what stands out for me is commercial was pretty popular early on.
At least I'm assuming that there are quite a few romance books – guessing by the titles – that were the bestsellers of those years.
And this was in the day when genre fiction was hard to come by. In fact, I could be wrong about the dates, but wasn't reading genre fiction considered somewhat decadent or sinful until about the 1900s?
Coming back to recent times, it's interesting to see the advent of movie blockbusters. E.T. and the Jedi Storybook (?) 🙂 You can probably tell quite a bit about a times period by looking at the best seller list.
Thanks, Nathan, this is really interesting!
Bruce Bonafede says
My first takeaway from this list is that it's gratifying, almost heartwarming, to see that so many great books sold so well. As to the distinction between "commercial" and "literary" fiction, in my opinion they are symbiotic – as William F. Buckley Jr. said (pretty much) in an interview many years ago: "You can complain about the state of literature all you want, but when you can buy a play by Shakespeare for a couple of dollars, I'd say things are pretty good."
Nathan Bransford says
Actually it's true that The Robe had two separate bestselling years 10 years apart. One when the book was first released, the second when the movie based on the book was released.
Cecelia Dowdy says
>>>Actually it's true that The Robe had two separate bestselling years 10 years apart. One when the book was first released, the second when the movie based on the book was released.
I guess sales of The Great Gatsby was a bestseller when the movie was released? I didn't bother researching this, but, did see the book in stores with a new cover…
Lori Schafer says
Fascinating list… who knew Winston Churchill was such a popular author? The real turning point, though, I think, comes around the Return of the Jedi Storybook. Few are bigger Star Wars fans than I, but a movie tie-in was the year's best seller? Now that's a culture shift.
I'm going to vote for globalization. Since the 1900's, technologies like radio, movies, television, and the internet have provided readers with increased context of geographic settings and characters that were previously not there. With this increased context, I believe that readers no longer had a need or desire for exhaustive details and descriptions of settings.
Carmen Webster Buxton says
I think mostly the list illustrates that tastes change, and John Gresham is a very rich man. Are the older books really "more literary" or do we just think they are because they're old?
Also, in case anyone doesn't get it, the Winston Churchill listed is an American author unrelated to the British PM.
The Modern Library's list is chock full of white men! It's interesting that we haven't really progressed on that front.
I'm sorry to see that we haven't really progressed when it comes to gender or racial representation. Very few PoCs, very few women.
Christine Ashworth says
This is a fascinating list. I saw some books that I need to read – thanks for the reminder!
So, by decade, the number of "100 best" novels (I don't guarantee 100% correctness in my counts):
1920-1929: 16, 2 of them reached #1
1930-1939: 18, 1 of them reached #1
1950-1959: 12, 1 of them reached #1
1960-1969: 11, 1 of them reached #1
1970-1979: 5, 1 of them reached #1
2010-2013: 0 (to date)
No books published after 1983 made it onto the "100 best" novels list. That's (counts on fingers) thirty years ago. And that's unrelated to popularity.
One could put forth the argument that it's not that readers used to have better taste, but that publishers used to have better taste.
Another alternative: John B. Thompson, author of Merchants of Culture, notes, "While agents existed in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, they were not as prevalent or powerful players as they are today. What you had from the 1970s and ’80s on was the rise of what I call the super agent… There was a very close relation between publishers and authors. That was all destroyed in the 1960s and ’70s, completely. … Once the agents became significant players they demanded high advances at a time when retail chains were growing and houses like Simon & Schuster and Random House were coming under the umbrella of large corporations and were able to afford the large advances."
Anyway, you can't blame the readers for not reading books that weren't published.
"Are the older books really "more literary" or do we just think they are because they're old?"
My opinion: It's just that they're old.
Mary Shelley wrote a literary classic about stitching together corpses and reanimating them.
Dickens wrote about ghosts that revealed past, present, and future. Today, they might shelve him alongside pulpy SciFi–maybe even Stephen King?
Most literary classics endured to today because they were also commercially viable.
"One could put forth the argument that it's not that readers used to have better taste, but that publishers used to have better taste."
No. I don't think taste has anything to do with this time-sliding phenomenon. I think it has everything to do with POV (and a sort of glorious revisionist history) We place great works of old on a pedestal.
What really has happened is that "literary classic" has become a genre unto itself. And no modern book can become one because one of the predetermining factors is age.
But it is a sliding scale (time's always moving, right?)
Are Fahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange classics now? I Am Legend?
(If Night of The Living Dead is a classic film and George Romero says he owes everything to I Am Legend–does that make I Am Legend also a classic? Trivia: Romero made Night of the Living Dead because he couldn't secure the rights to I Am Legend). Odd how we look at and categorize things, isn't it?
There's definitely this grey area that's fiction our parents grew up with, fiction that inspired current writers, that predates most of us. Works that feel like they should be in the same categories as Dickens and Verne and H.G. Wells — but are simply too new to be compared with such "greats."
I think there is definitely a stigma about holding up a modern work to a classic of old is to devalue the classic. And that's not necessarily true.
I also think we innately think "old timey" language constitutes a classic as well. But Catcher In The Rye pretty much proves that as bunk.
I think it's hard for us to see "Like, ohmigod, amiright?!" in a sentence and consider that book a contender for a classic.
But it's really no different than the language in The Three Musketeers. It's just that we are no longer accustomed to the slang and idioms of the past. (And the translation :P).
Anyway, that's my long-winded thought.
To further my point on revisionist classics, here's a movie example.
Do you know why It's A Wonderful Life is a staple of American Christmas?
I mean, think about that story for a minute. It's not your average Christmas fair. In fact, it's downright depressing.
A dude is stuck in a town that he wishes he could get out of. His brother goes off to war, sees the world. He wishes he could have lived the life his brother did. But instead he stays behind and takes care of the town and its bank. People in this small town are depending on him. When he makes a mistake that causes 5k to be misplaced his asshat boss hides the money so that the bank will likely crumble. This guy devoted his entire life to this town and these people. At the first sign of trouble they are all turning on him.
He is so depressed that he goes to a bridge to kill himself…
Keep in mind, this is a CHRISTMAS MOVIE. A staple of American television. When a humorous animated Superbowl commercial of an assembly line robot jumping off a bridge causes a riot and gets the commercial pulled after 1 airing …well, you get the picture. Yet, during Xmas, the time of year most noted for highest suicide rates … IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE has become a Xmas ritual.
Here's what happened.
Traditionally, Xmas is a terrible time for television programming. Most networks put on reruns and things that cost them very little. They figure people are traveling or with their families so don't have time for TV (which was probably more accurate in the past).
So Xmas programming is notably pretty bad. There's a lot of cheap filler.
It's a Wonderful Life was filmed in 1946. At that time copyright had a 28 year "lifespan" that could be renewed. The producers failed to renew it. So, in 1974, It's a Wonderful Life fell into the public domain.
And there's your answer why it has become a staple of American X-Mas television. It was dirt cheap to put on the air and could be run endlessly.
Makes you think about how and what we consider a classic (and why we think of it that way) doesn't it?
Vacuum Queen says
I'm actually very surprised that each Harry Potter book wasn't the best selling of its year. I had assumed that those books dominated the market. Each one.
I have to say that I contributed to the John Grisham best selling title. I remember that period fondly.
Modern day authors are writing for the mass market. Just throw together simple sentences, include them in 15 word paragraphs, group those in two page chapters and you wind up with a book that is designed to pass time and pad pockets. What author is going to take the time to present the reader with content that is worthy of appropriate discourse when most readers want instant or short term gratification and are not interested in sitting down and deconstructing the content.
Are there any authors that actually take the time that writers did 100 years ago to construct a novel?
Eugenia Parrish says
Stacy: Yup, me. For various reasons I spent ten years writing my first published novel. And it didn't do me much good, which may be why not many writers want to do that now. I'm not saying my book's a classic, far from it. The sad thing (for me, not necessarily for readers) is that my book isn't making much money. It doesn't have thrills, chases, mysteries, mysterious villains, strange sexual appetites or magical people. It just has people. Which doesn't seem very popular anymore. Was it ever? I didn't see "The Help" on the list or "The Group" (published 1954), both of which I used as 'models' for the type of book I wanted to write simply because it's the type of book I like to read. Unfortunately, that's not what people are gobbling up for their Kindles. So now I'm being pressured to pump out a murder mystery in a month. Are we more literate now? Don't know. But 'literature' has changed.
Mister Furkles says
Many of you are taking this as a sign that readers have changed. Of course they have. But what I think is the dominating effect is the price compression between paperbacks and hardbound books.
Now, I haven’t researched these numbers so they are basically from memory:
In 1900, the average annual income of a skilled worker was about $400. College graduates received about $5 per week or about $250 a year to start. An income of $1000 per year was quite good. At the same time hardbound books were for a few dollars – say, $4. While paperbound books were about $0.25.
The average skilled worker today gets something like $40000 per year – or about 100 times what they made in 1900. If books were similarly priced, hardbound books would be about $400 and paperbacks would be about $25.
Because of the compression of prices, many popular books, which might have been paperbacks decades ago, are published in hardbound. Is there anybody who can’t afford Fifty Shades of Grey? What if it cost $400. Or even $100.
But a truly well written novel might fetch $100 today if there were no TV, no video games, and no Amazon to sell it for $12.
Another key aspect of this is that publishers cannot afford small print runs. Decades ago the relative costs of publishing fell on material and shipping. Today it is on editing, cover art, and returns. So, costs today are heavily front loaded. Small print runs are money losers. This pushes the publishers to the more secure mass market books – the dime novels of the 21st century.
You simply cannot draw conclusions from such lists because our world is very different from the world before and just after WWII.
Karen Clayton says
Maybe one of these days, Mason Davis and the Rise of the Storm Makers, will make that list too!
Nathan, did you see this article in the NYT Mag about "What It Means to be Popular (When Everything Is Popular)"? Makes some interesting points regarding books, music, videos, etc, and draws attention to how we even calculate popularity anymore when there are so many splintered arenas to calculate.
Would help if I left the link, huh?
Geez…how much money does John Grisham have?
Ellen Appleby Keim says
Although the point about best-selling books is valid (that they don't necessary reflect what people were reading, only what they were buying), I think it's even more telling that so few National Book Award winners of the past are even known today. Apparently it takes a lot to make a book a classic.
Pete Mack says
This is almost meaningless, unless you include the fraction of the total public buying each book. Until the Age of Pulp, books written specifically for the masses just weren't widely available. The existence of a mass market is almost guaranteed to change the balance on the #1 best seller.
Yes, Rachel, Swati, and Kristi Lea: are you suggesting that to make sure all best-of lists are 51 percent female, and 51 percent colored, list-makers should white out the actual content of the book, and just make choices based on the name of the author – kind of the reverse of how writing contest are judged?
Lisa Bentuceff says
What a fascinating list, and kudos to the people who put it together. I posted some of my thoughts on it at https://bentuceff.tumblr.com.
Sebastian Shores says
Wow a LOT of people are missing the whole point of this blog entirely. The also published I believe are books that DID NOT make the best seller list.
Tim Way says
Where is “The Jungle” in 1906?