Thursday, March 11, 2004

10 years of best sellers: How the landscape has changed

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

When USA TODAY began its Best-Selling Books list 10 years ago, books weren't sold on the Internet, J.K. Rowling was a struggling, unknown writer, and Oprah Winfrey had yet to become publishing's darling.

Oprah's book club has worked magic on book sales for new titles and classics alike.
Harpo Productions

My, how things have changed.

A decade later, USA TODAY's book list reveals a different world. Rowling is the decade's most successful author, landing five of the top six spots on the list of the 100 best-selling books of the past 10 years.

A decade's worth of data shows just how much book sales and reading habits have changed since USA TODAY began tracking best sellers in October 1993:

•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.

•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. In that year, the Monica Lewinsky scandal briefly propelled The Starr Report to the top of the weekly list.

E-books, which are read on computer screens, failed to attract much attention.

But never have so many printed books been published: more than 1,000 new titles a week, nearly double the volume in 1993. And never have they been so easy to buy, accessible over the Internet and in nationwide chain superstores. Still, book sales are flat.

"There's more and more competition for people's time," says Albert Greco, professor of media management at Fordham University in New York, who cites surveys showing that 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, he says, the average American adult spent more money last year on movies, videos and DVDs ($166) than on books ($90).

It's a money game

Best sellers (top 10 hardcover fiction, top 10 hardcover non-fiction, top 10 trade paperbacks and top 10 mass-market paperbacks) accounted for only 4% of sales last year at the largest retailer, Barnes & Noble, vice president Bob Wietrak says. "But they're important because they bring people into the stores."

Simon & Schuster's editor in chief, Michael Korda, says best sellers have always been a mixture of "quality and trash, of literature for the ages and self-improvement schemes." For better or worse, the list is a way of assessing the culture. Korda calls it "a kind of corrective reality. It tells us what we're actually reading, or, at least, what we're actually buying."

Selling books is a hit-driven business, especially for the five biggest publishers (Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Time Warner), now all part of entertainment conglomerates. Profits from best sellers cover the costs of other books. Greco estimates seven of every 10 new titles either lose money or break even.

Sometimes quality sells. Eight of the decade's 100 most popular books won major literary awards, including Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes, No. 14, and Charles Frazier's debut novel, Cold Mountain, No. 48. Both began with modest first printings and ended up selling millions.

Since the first weekly list, four major forces changed the list, reflecting a changing culture:

•An age ofabundance and familiarity. "Remember when the word Amazon meant a river in Brazil?" asks Carol Fitzgerald, president of, a Web site for book discussions. "How many times a day do people now say, 'Let me look it up on Amazon?' ", which began selling books online in 1995, boasts a catalog of about 2 million titles. Sales rankings for each title change hourly based on sales in the last 24 hours. Amazon and rivals and, the joint effort of independent stores, account for less than 8% of book sales. But they provide unprecedented information about a wide range of new and old books.

Offline, the two largest chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders, went on a building spree. The number of superstores, each stocking as many as 200,000 titles, jumped from 247 in 1993 to more than 1,000.

But more isn't always better, says Nancy Pearl, a Seattle librarian and author of Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason. "It's unbelievable the number of titles that come across my desk, and so many of them are so badly written and badly edited. ... It's harder and harder to find the books you want to read because of all the dross and dreck."

David Gernert, Grisham's editor and agent, says that in "a superstore environment, readers are more likely to take refuge in the familiar, the tried and true, what's trusted and known, than in some new author. When you're faced with thousands of choices, you go with what you already know."

Discount stores and price clubs, which now account for more than 11% of book sales, limit nearly all their selection to proven best sellers. "Until you're known, you're not even allowed into these humongous outlets," Gernert says.

•The wizard of bookselling. Before Rowling there was J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, a best-selling trilogy before it hit the big screen. But Tolkien "appealed more to the college crowd than to kids," says Gayle Feldman, whose study of the book business, Best and Worst of Times, was published last year. Feldman says Rowling "did nothing less than revive the pre-radio, pre-movies, pre-TV tradition of the family-reading book," the kind popularized by Charles Dickens and Walter Scott that were "both classic best seller and best-selling classic."

Rowling also "showed us that children appreciated complicated story lines," says Fitzgerald of "They live in a world of 15-minute television programming where a story unfolds and warps, often with complex detail. It's changed how they want to read from the moment they get started."

•The Oprah effect. Reading groups were active long before Winfrey launched her book club in 1996. But she popularized the idea and created instant best sellers. Four of her selections are in the top 100 of the decade, and she propelled three other titles onto the list, including No. 21, In the Kitchen With Rosie by Rosie Daley, her cook. When Winfrey halted her book club in 2002 (she revived it for classics last year), TV shows started their own book clubs, although none can match her clout.

More so than newspapers and magazines, TV and radio personalities are driving book sales, says Borders vice president Anne Kubek.

"Readers increasingly are taking their clues (on what to buy) from the people they watch and listen to." That's important, she says, "when it's becoming so hard to break through all the media clutter."

Then there's the "One Book, One City" programs where residents are all urged to read the same book and discuss it. Since librarian Pearl began the idea in Seattle in 1998, it has spread to hundreds of other cities, including Chicago, which in 2001 recommended reading Harper Lee's 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, No. 25 on the list.

•The aging of America. Books offering advice on how to improve your life — mentally, physically or financially — are a fixture on the top 100. In the early years of the list, self-help books such as John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (No. 9) led the self-improvement category, but now, in the era of low-carb fixation, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution (No. 2) and other diet books are the weapon of choice in the quest for a better me. Wietrak attributes that to baby boomers.

What's unchanged

If Rowling, Winfrey and the Internet changed things, much remains the same:

•Hooray for Hollywood. Nothing sells books more than a movie. Nineteen of the decade's best sellers were movie tie-ins. Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, No. 36 for the decade, was a hit before the movie, and the movie fostered even more sales. The most successful books enjoy four incarnations: hardcover, paperback, movie and video/DVD.

In fact, Pat Schroeder, the former congresswoman and president of the Association of American Publishers since 1997, says, "We need to find a way to get books into movie theaters so they can sell them along with the popcorn."

•Many exports, few imports. American authors routinely turn up on best-seller lists in other countries, but few foreign writers and translated works become best sellers in the USA. The one recent exception: One Hundred Years of Solitude, the classic by Gabriel García Márquez, hit the weekly list but only after Winfrey chose it for her revived book club.

•Word of mouth. Greco says that despite the marketing efforts of publishers, nothing continues to sell a book like word-of-mouth recommendations, passed on from one reader to another or one reading group to another.

In one of the case studies in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Difference, author Malcolm Gladwell traces the success of Rebecca Wells' novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, No. 19 on the decade list. Before it became a national best seller, Gladwell found it was a hit among reading groups in Northern California.

"It was the kind of emotionally sophisticated, character-driven, multilayered novel that invites reflection and discussion, and book groups were flocking to it." Gladwell concludes that the novel's "roots in book-group culture tipped it into a larger word-of-mouth epidemic."

•Publishers don't know why some books sell. Books often become best sellers to the surprise and puzzlement of their publishers, says Korda of Simon & Schuster, who wrote a history of a century of best sellers, Making the List. "That's why publishers find it so hard to repeat their success. Half the time they can't figure out how they happened in the first place."

Despite growing competition from other parts of the entertainment industry and changes in technology, he says, "The book has survived and people continue to buy the big best sellers.

"Possibly literacy itself is doomed in some kind of digitalized future, but for the moment, all we can say is that people are reading about as much as they ever did, that the big best sellers are measured in numbers significantly higher than ever before, and that the best-seller list, in one form or another, is very likely to be with us, for better or for worse, for another 100 years more."

Contributing: Jacqueline Blais, Anthony DeBarros, Rati Bishnoi - 10 years of best sellers: How the landscape has changed

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