Analyzing the PW best sellers list

Publishers Weekly (PW) has released its list of 2009 best sellers compiled from information submitted to them by publishers. It would behoove you to check it out.

In particular, take a good, hard look at the author names in the top thirty hardback fiction sellers:

Dan Brown. John Grisham. Kathryn Stockett. James Patterson. Nicholas Sparks. John Grisham. Janet Evanovich. Stephenie Meyer. Stephen King. Michael Crichton. Patricia Cornwell. Sue Grafton. Patricia Cornwell. Alyson Noel. James Patterson. Clive Cussler with Dirk Cussler. Pat Conroy. James Patterson. David Baldacci. James Patterson. Vince Flynn. James Patterson. Nora Roberts. Dean Koontz. Charlaine Harris. Danielle Steel. David Baldacci. Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. Clive Cussler. Mary Higgins Clark.

Look at them again:

  • Dan Brown—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (puzzle thrillers, series protagonist, first 3 books mediocre sellers).
  • John Grisham—long-time MEGAFAMOUS, 2 times on this list (political thrillers, politician-turned author, first book $5k advance).
  • Kathryn Stockett (1960s retro-historical fiction with severe racial tension).
  • James Patterson—long-time pretty darn famous, 5 times on this list (murder thrillers, ad salesman-turned-author, described by Stephen King as “a terrible writer.”)
  • Nicholas Sparks—pretty darn famous (Christian romance).
  • Janet Evanovich—pretty darn famous (bounty hunter thrillers, series protagonist).
  • Stephenie Meyer—pretty darn famous (young adult paranormal romance, series protagonist, poor writing).
  • Stephen King—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (horror/suspense thrillers, great writing).
  • Michael Chrichton—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (technothrillers).
  • Patricia Cornwell—pretty darn famous, 2 times on this list (crime thrillers, series protagonist).
  • Sue Grafton—pretty darn famous (murder mysteries, series protagonist, decent writing).
  • Alyson Noel—famous enough (young adult paranormal romance, series protagonist).
  • Clive Cussler—pretty darn famous, 2 times on this list (technothrillers).
  • Pat Conroy—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (psychological melodrama).
  • David Baldacci—pretty darn famous, 2 times on this list (political thrillers).
  • Vince Flynn—pretty famous (political thrillers, series protagonist).
  • Nora Roberts—pretty darn famous (romance, over 100 novels written, founding member of Romance Writers of America).
  • Dean Koontz—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (horror/suspense thrillers).
  • Charlaine Harris—famous enough (paranormal mysteries, series protagonists).
  • Danielle Steel—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (romance among rich folks).
  • Robert Jordan (with Brandon Sanderson, because Jordan died)famous enough (fantasy, series).
  • Mary Higgins Clark—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (murder & romance among rich folks, poor writing).

Look at them in the context of top mass market paperback sellers:

John Grisham. James Patterson. James Patterson. Nora Roberts. Janet Evanovich. James Patterson. Patricia Cornwell. David Baldacci. David Baldacci. Debbie Macomber. Debbie Macomber. Iris Johansen. James Patterson. Patricia Cornwell. James Patterson. Dean Koontz. Charlaine Harris. Nicholas Sparks. Janet Evanovich. Catherine Coulter. Mary Higgins Clark. Charlaine Harris. Janet Evanovich. James Rollins. Iris Johansen.

Only four new names out of twenty-five, and all the rest straight off the hardback best sellers list (yes, twenty-one repeats!).

  • Debbie Macomber—famous enough, 2 times on this list (romance).
  • Iris Johansen—famous enough, 2 times on this list (crime, series protagonists).
  • Catherine Coulter—been around forever (political thrillers, series protagonists).
  • James Rollins—pretty darn famous (technothrillers, series protagonists).

What does this tell us, folks?

First and foremost, it tells us that the top 44 1/2 million books sold in the U.S. in 2009 were all written by the same tiny handful of twenty-six people. (Notice John Grisham, Stephen King, Vince Flynn, and Mary Higgins Clark all decline to report their sales. According to where they stand in the list, they can safely be assumed to account for another 4 million on an extremely conservative estimate, bringing that up to 48 1/2 million).

You read it right: that’s 26 writers responsible for the vast, vast bulk of what sells in this country, barely two dozen human beings, all of whom have been on this list many, many times before throughout careers spanning decades, the majority of them already established best sellers long before the publishing industry turned into the Mr. Hyde it so recently turned into.

Only one lonely little writer who has, apparently, never appeared on this list before. ONE.

Are these the luminaries of our era? The brilliant writers we all long to be? The greats who will go down in the American canon?

Well, at least one of them is heck of good when he wants to be: that’s Stephen King. I read The Shining when it came out back in the Cretaceous Period and thought, Wow, this guy’s a real writer!

So I’m inclined to believe him when he says James Patterson is a “terrible writer” who produces “dopey thrillers.” This opinion was echoed by Patrick Anderson of The Washington Post, who apparently called Patterson’s work “the absolute pits, the lowest common denominator of cynical, scuzzy, assembly-line writing.” Does lowest common denominator assembly-line writing sell? Patterson’s got five books on the top thirty hardback fiction list, more than twice as many as his next competitor. So, yeah, it looks like it sells.

I’ve read virtually none of the rest of these authors, except a tiny bit of Stephenie Meyer, whose Twilight series is being critiqued chapter-by-chapter by the Twilight Snarker; Sue Grafton, whom I analyzed when I began studying mystery structure; and one novel by Mary Higgins Clark, which made me pound my forehead on the floor until I saw stars. So I can’t comment on the quality of most of the writing, only assume that if an assembly-line-writing ad salesman can climb to the top of the publishing money machine then quality is not exactly the deciding factor in who wins this particular game.

What else does this list tell us?

Well, American readers really like series protagonists. They like reading about the same character over and over and over and over again. Does this character change and grow throughout the series? Not really. Otherwise they’d lose their ability to placate their legions of hypnotized readers. They’d have to age, make choices, settle down into lifestyles, eventually get old and start dealing with health issues. . .and it’d no longer be the same old story happening repeatedly forever.

Also, American readers REALLY like thrillers. Technothrillers, political thrillers, horror/suspense thrillers, puzzle thrillers, murder mystery and crime thrillers, even bounty hunter thrillers. Anything that makes your hair stand on end. Not only must it be the same old character and the same old story, but it must be the same old freaky story.

Give us a series of novels—not even well-written ones—about the same character going through the same kinds of thrillers over and over and over again, and we’ll mortgage the farm for ya. You bet.

If you can’t do that, then give us a series of novels—ditto—about the same character over an over and over again, only paranormal.

Or novels—ditto—about rich people getting laid.

Or ditto about ANYBODY getting laid. If they’re teens, pretend they’re not getting laid, they’re just having lunch off each other’s necks. (Hickies to die for.)

But even if you can do all that, you still have to make sure that before you try to give us anything you are already so FAMOUS we know not only your name, but where you’re from, where you live now, what you look like, and how to join your fan club.

And if you can’t do that. . .well, I’m sorry. I just hope you’re Kathryn Stockett.

18 thoughts on “Analyzing the PW best sellers list

  1. Kathryn says:

    I could change my last name!

  2. chris ryan says:

    This is so sad. I haven’t read any of these writers, except half of Steven King’s book on writing, which was beyond horrible.

  3. Victoria says:

    So Kathryn’s already halfway there!

    Chris, it is completely demoralizing if you’re still harboring the hope that publishing in this day & age has anything at all to do with writing books. It doesn’t. It has to do with business, the business of mindless hypnosis that television (and now the Internet) has conditioned our minds to accept. Once upon a time, fiction was about telling a great story in powerful, clean language. As far as I’m concerned, it still is. But the publishing industry, by that definition, is no longer even about fiction.

    You know, I enjoyed the Stephen King book as long as it was the story of how he became a writer. But it was obvious that after his accident he had a manuscript that simply wasn’t a book on writing like he’d promised his publisher, and he didn’t have it in him to WRITE that book, so he just threw some generic advice onto the end of his little memoir and called it a day. I do not list it among the books on writing that I recommend to people.

  4. Melissa says:

    This is a great post — and not just because I thought I was the only person who banged my head on the floor when I read MHC all those years ago.

    I think you’re spot-on about Stephen King. I’ve taught him several times as part of college lit classes (American lit survey and a subset on supernatural American fiction) and I think he’ll remain in the canon. I would never even consider teaching anyone else on this list in a lit survey class.

  5. Victoria says:

    Melissa—supernatural American fiction! Please tell me you teach Wieland. I mean, if you can’t enjoy a good story about early Americans spontaneously combusting, what CAN you enjoy?

    Who do you cover in American lit survey? I’m looking for recommendations of great fiction authors to use as examples in the workbooks I’m writing to go with The Art & Craft of Fiction.

  6. Melissa says:

    Wieland — yes! Also Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Wharton, James, King, and some film (including The Exorcist, which many 18 year-olds have never seen, so it’s fun to watch them react to it). That’s supernatural Am fiction — I’ll send you the reading list for the Am lit survey.

  7. Victoria says:

    Oh, yeah, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I used that on the magazine when I was talking about how to structure your story toward climax. I credit The Blythedale Romance for introducing me to Zenobia—I hate what Hawthorne did to his character, but I love the real historical figure. I’ve used Alexander Baron’s Queen of the East in discussing hook & climax, too.

    I have a whole chapter on Poe in The Art & Craft of Fiction. I love gothic stuff. James turns up repeatedly, too—he was basically English literature in a nutshell. I use “The Turn of the Screw” constantly as the perfect example of leading your reader by the nose to the Very. Last. Word. I explicated it in college as a story of child molest.

    Wharton’s so depressing—I’ll never forgive her for killing off Lily at the end of The House of Mirth. For heaven’s sake. You’d think she’d learned nothing from Clarissa. But I love the title (especially its meaning) of Twilight Sleep.

    What about Louisa May Alcott? You can’t leave her out!

    I never saw The Exorcist, never will. I was a teenager when that came out, and it gave everyone I knew nightmares.

  8. Speaking of horror thrillers, how well does dark fantasy do?

  9. Ted says:

    I’ve known this depressing reality about the publishing industry but haven’t sorted out the actual numbers — thanks for doing that. On a related note, just a couple of days ago I was doing some research — for a novel I’m writing, perhaps quixotically — and in a book published in the 80s, the author was lamenting how publishing houses so frequently opt to publish yet another edition of a classic novel rather than use their resources to promote someone’s new work (I love books like Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, and Pride and Prejudice, but how many versions does the world need?). I’d say that in the last thirty years, this phenomenon has only become more virulent, exacerbated by the related trend of large houses acquiring or driving out of business smaller presses.

  10. Libby says:

    On the opposite side of depressing, however, is the fact that there is a lot of writing going on that isn’t hitting the PW Bestseller Lists and alot of it is terrific and original. It is a rare blend of originality, creativity and spirit that penetrates the mass American psyche and its fire never lasts long.

  11. Joanna Penn says:

    Hi Victoria,

    Great post and an analysis I also did on my site. Another thing these writers generally have in common is they are all “mature” and have been writing for years. This encourages me as if I can write a novel a year for years, maybe I will be able to make a decent living! 🙂

    Thanks, Joanna

  12. That’s so depressing. Where are the really good writers like Alice Munro, William Trevor, Toni Morrison, et al.? Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is simply drenched in grace it’s so beautiful. Two of those writers aren’t Americans, I know, but their books sell in the US. Or at least are available for sale. I know a university dean who was interviewing a man for a position as an English professor, and that man had never even heard of Katherine Mansfield! He asked, “What do you think of Katherine Mansfield?” And the would be English professor replied, “Who is Katherine Mansfield?”

    I read one John Grisham book (The Pelican Brief) and one Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code). That was enough of both authors for me, but of the two, I think Grisham is the better writer. I read one Stephen King (Desperation) and didn’t like it, but I think King used to be a terrific writer. His prose and especially his dialogue were great. I read maybe two or three of Patricia Cornwell’s “Kay Scarpetta” books when I was young. They get old fast. I will confess to actually liking Mary Higgins Clark when I was a teenager. My naivete was drawn in by that combination of romance and suspense. But even if her prose were “to die for,” she writes the same novel over and over and over again. The plots are all recycled. I couldn’t read her today. I’m a grown up now.

    I’m surprised that Americans love thrillers so much. Maybe if other writers would raise the stakes in their books more, Americans wouldn’t feel the need to race to thrillers. No, Americans want that adrenaline rush. And movies aren’t helping any. Now we don’t just have thriller movies like “Unstoppable,” we have them on gigantic ultrascreens and in 3D.

    Enlightening. Thank you.


  13. And Kathryn Stockett makes no bones about the fact that it took five years for her agent to sell her manuscript of “The Help.”

  14. Nicole says:

    I realize that she may fall into same category as above mentioned (maybe not) but where is J.K. Rowling?

    AND, if Stephenie Meyer falls into the category of bad writing (and I’m not saying she doesn’t) how does Alyson Noel not even get a mention for her quality of writing. It would appear to be the same situation, only MUCH worse because her writing is horrendous, characters and plots even worse. The only justification I can come up with as to why teens are reading her onto the bestseller’s lists, is that she writes with the immaturity and shallow thinking of a teen (and I’m talking 13-14 max). Reading her books, as a YOUNG ADULT is torture. What’s the point? I’m perfect & I hate myself & the hot guy is flawless too & I hate him even though there is a uncanny resemblance to the vampire in (poor writing) Twilight, but he’s not as cool because he’s already been done in (poor writing) Twilight. And that’s just the The Immortals Series, and just my opinion, as a young adult.

    The point of my comment: If you’re going to place “poor writing” next to Stephenie Meyer on the above list, then you should place it next to Alyson Noel as well. Because while there are a lot of readers/writers/editors etc. who share that OPINION, Alyson Noel’s writing mistakes are much more obvious than Stephenie Meyer’s and therefore closer to the category of FACT (poor writing). Fair is fair and poor writing is poor writing.

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, sure, Nicole. Like I said, I haven’t read Noel, so I can’t comment on the quality of her work. I’ve read a little of Meyer’s—it was sad.

      I’m willing to take your word for it Noel’s in the same camp.

  15. Nicole says:

    I just felt like if one was dubbed poor writing, the one that was worse shouldn’t be left without the same judgement. Please at least read one chapter of Evermore for proof.
    Not saying you were wrong at all to mention poor writing. Just that there is definitely worse out there – on bestseller list even.

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, honey, I don’t have time to read poor writing just to find out it really is poor. I believe you!

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