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Bestselling trends

11 November 2013

A recent investigation by USA Today into their bestseller lists of the last thirty years throws an interesting light on changes in bestsellerdom and background changes in the way in which books are bought and sold.

In the years 1993-98, John Grisham dominated the fiction bestsellers but the list as a whole was full of big non-fiction bestsellers, mostly self-help, such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff... And it's all Small Stuff and Chicken Soup for the Soul. This was an era when books were still bought in retail stores, especially bookstores, and the big book chains were dominant.
1999 to 2009 was the era of Harry Potter, with a number of J K Rowling's books dominating the bestseller lists and also there was Dan Brown with his The Da Vinci Code. Lurking in there at number 7 was Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution, in its way a throwback to an earlier era. This was a time when internet books sales started to take off and it can easily be labelled the dotcom sales era.

Then there was 2009 to the present, when the book market was transformed by ebooks taking off. This period was dominated by three books by Suzanne Collins, three of whose titles were near the top of the charts, but also by Fifty Shades of Grey, which made erotica mainstream and something which women were no longer afraid to be openly reading. By the end of this most recent era about half of all books are being bought online in the US, with a corresponding decline in bricks and mortar bookshops. This period has also been characterised by a violent change in the book market, triggered not just by the rise of ebooks, which have favoured online retailers, but also by digitisation in general.

Globalisation has been at work during the last thirty years, in the book business worldwide just as much, if not more, as in other areas. It is notable that the books which did best in the earliest period were non-fiction bestsellers which did not translate so well elsewhere. By the time we get to the middle period though, it is fiction which dominates and much of it is written by a Brit, J K Rowling. The particular effect of the Harry Potter series defies general analysis but it is also notable that it was written for children, although untold numbers of adults have also been avid readers of the series.

Similarly in the most recent period the Twilight series was written for Young Adult readers, and The Hunger Games series also has a strong appeal for this age group. Another British author, E L James has been prominent on the bestseller lists. These books have had a global audience and perhaps the most notable effect of the swing to ebooks and globalisation has been that US bestsellers have become international bestsellers, in a way they used not to be. And, for the first time a translated book by Stieg Larson made it into the US bestseller lists.

To quote the two authors of the study on the changes which have taken place:

‘Readers still want to read what other people are reading and talking about. When a new name pops onto the list and stays there, there is a lemming effect of sales as readers want to be part of reading a new author early.' and ‘A mega best seller works itself into the social fabric of our lives. It becomes part of the American culture. Everyone knows Harry Potter even if they've never read any of the books.'

This is what it means to be a bestseller.