Between the Lines: Best Sellers

| May 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

The New York Times Book Review publishes thoughtful and intelligent reviews of newly published books and newly released paperbacks. The Review also includes five pages of best-seller lists: print hardback, trade and mass-market paperback, and combined print/e-book rankings all broken down into fiction and nonfiction, plus a separate advice/how-to/miscellaneous section, and children’s books.

I wonder how many of today’s bestselling books will be remembered 50 years from now. In 1944, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” topped the fiction list for a time—an enduring classic. But who remembers “Earth and High Heaven by Gwethayn Graham, which hit number one in 1945? After James Michener’s “Hawaii” in 1960, “The Last of the Just” by Andre Schwarz-Bart ranked highest at some point in 1961. Conversely, we can point to novels that never made the lists that have gone down in history.

Weekly rankings are published in dozens of U.S. periodicals. In a time of shrinking newspapers, they wouldn’t run them if they didn’t think that’s what people want, that we are social animals, marching to the beat of each other’s drums. Where books are concerned, we read what other people read, often friends and family and trusted sources, but also the nameless multitudes whose cha-chings at the cash register (or clicks to buy online) add up to a place on the bestseller lists.

Rankings by sales may do more than simply reflect consumer choices, however; the lists in turn influence book-buying behavior, and a book’s appearance on the bestseller list has an independent effect on its sales. It’s a bestseller because people buy it; people buy it because it’s a bestseller.

I asked a number of people, all of them readers and a few writers—by no means a random sample—about their preferences and how they decide what to read. I sent them recent New York Times bestseller lists—hardback and paperback—and asked how many of the 36 books listed they’ve read. Several, like me, had read a few, mostly after they were in paperback; a few hadn’t read any at all.

For the most part they look at the bestseller lists more out of interest than as a guide. A book on the list may grab their attention, but that’s usually because they’ve heard about it or read a review. Their choices are guided mostly by word of mouth, by familiarity with an author, and by reviews in publications or from sources they trust, like the New York Times, NPR, Warwick’s.

So what are they reading? I asked my respondents to name a book they’d read recently; most replied with two or three. The resulting list is evenly divided between fiction and nonfiction, with leanings toward history and historical fiction, memoir and biography. Novels include “Transatlantic” by Colum McCann and another by McCann, “Let the Great World Spin,” “Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd, “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss, “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert (accompanied by a robust defense of Gilbert’s controversial “Eat, Pray, Love”). Nonfiction selections were “Unbroken” by Laura Hilldebrand, “Thank You for Your Service” by David Finkel, “The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwabe, “On Writing” by Stephen King, among others.

Several of these books have appeared on bestseller lists, but this wasn’t why they were chosen; it appears that it’s the opposite effect—they are influencing the lists rather than the other way around. It would appear that while we may be social animals, our reading habits are eclectic. We’ll jump on the bandwagon if it’s going our way; otherwise we may start our own.

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