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section heading icon     sales

This page considers some questions about 'best sellers' and returns.

It covers -

It complements the discussion of audience measurement here and authors' estates here.

section marker     introduction

Major sales have been praised as an indicator of quality (or the reverse), as an outcome of effective marketing or as requiring dissection to differentiate betwen hype and what actually gets into the hands of consumers.

Sales figures have been notoriously slippery, because publishers mislead consumers (or simply do not disclose the 'real' numbers), there has been little independent monitoring of claims (in contrast to tracking of newspaper and magazine sales by national circulation audit boards) and because in the past much content was pirated or published in regimes such as the US that inadequately recognised overseas copyrights.

Albert Greco, author of The Book Publishing Industry (Boston: Allyn & Bacon 1997), thus quipped in 2007 that

The publishing business has never gone out of its way to report actual sales numbers because it has no real interest in doing so. It's hard to know what's real. If an author on TV talk says his book has sold 1 million copies, only a few people will know if that's true. ...

We estimate that out of every 10 hardcover adult books, seven lose money, two break even and one is a hit. So, of course, this business is secretive about sales. Would you want to tell the world that 70% of your output is losing money?

In 2008 Nielsen Bookscan claimed that of 200,000 titles on sale in the UK in 2007, 190,000 titles sold fewer than 3,500 copies. An estimated 58,325 of 85,933 new titles sold an average of just 18 copies. Only 2% of 1.2 million titles in the US during 2004 sold more than 5,000 copies.

section marker     the golden age?

One of the myths of contemporary publishing is that the 'bestseller' (often characterised as a work that gains global sales of over 100,000 copies within a year) or 'blockbuster (over one million in the same period) is a purely modern phenomenon.

Works such as Thomas Whiteside's The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates, Show Business & Book Publishing (Middletown: Wesleyan Uni Press 1981) or Michael Korda's Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999 (New York: Barnes & Noble 2001) and claims by publishers have variously attributed the scale of those sales to effective marketing, timeliness, the author's capacity to provide a ripping yarn, emulation of peers (Hawking's 1991 A Brief History of Time is one of the more famous unread texts) or merely the depravity of the mass audience (which naughtily preferred Peyton Place to A Room of One's Own or What Is To Be Done?).

Bestsellers are however identifiable in the past. They predate the net, television, retail chains and radio.

Major sales prior to 1900 were attributable to word of mouth, coverage in journals and newspapers, aspirations to 'betterment' or gentility, and serialisation.

They were also attributable to the conjunction of reduced paper costs (as a result of increased demand and the shift from rag to wood pulp), aggressive marketing campaigns by new and established publishers, reduced distribution costs (via railways, steamships and the post), greater disposable income among the lower classes and expansion of retail mechanisms such as circulating libraries (W H Smith and Mudies can for example be seen as precursors of WalMart).

Those factors are highlighted in works such as Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870-1918 (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2006) by Philip Waller, Guinevere Griest's Mudie's Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel (Bloomington: Indiana Uni Press 1970), Jonathan Rose' The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2001) and The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1958) by Richard Altick.

Consistent with theories of the 'long tail', discussed elsewhere on this site, some works enjoyed explosive initial sales before disappearing. Others sold steadily after a modest initial start.

Samuel Smiles' 1859 Self-Help; With Illustrations of Character, Conduct & Perseverance reportedly sold over 250,000 copies between 1859 and 1905. Competitor Martin Tupper's bathetic 1838 Proverbial Philosophy - Tony Robbins for the steam age - went through through 50 editions by 1880, with sales of a million copies in the US. Isabella Beeton's 1861 Book of Household Management, another foundation of how we conceptualise the Victorians, sold 640,000 copies by 1901. Harriet Beecher Stowe's maudlin 1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin garnered global sales of a million copies in its first year, as did E M Hull's 1919 The Sheikh ("At night, when you're asleep, into your tent I'll creep. You'll rule this land with me, 'Cause I'm the Sheikh of Araby").

Charles Dickens' 1837 Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club had sales of 800,000 copies by 1879. Alfred Tennyson's 1864 Enoch Arden sold 40,000 copies in its first two months. UK sales of In Memoriam were 25,000 copies in the first two years. Walter Scott's 1819 Ivanhoe had 10,000 sales in its initial two weeks.

Fergus Hume's 1888 The Mystery of a Hansom Cab sold 375,000 copies within a decade; the 1903 edition of Rider Haggard's She scored 500,000 sales in that year alone. Both were dwarfed by the now utterly forgotten Charles Garvice, who had global sales of a million copies for most of the Edwardian period, and Victor von Falk's penny dreadful Der Scharfrichter von Berlin (1890). H G Wells' 1920 The Outline of History sold three million by 1935. Rudyard Kipling had sales of over one million by 1910. Nat Gould (the Dick Francis of the 1890s, with some 130 novels) had sales of 24 million copies by 1927.

An indication of financial rewards is provided in a note here.

section marker     pervasive pulp

Airport novelist Sidney Seldon (1917-2007) reportedly sold over 300 million copies by 2006, with estimated sales of books, film and television of US$3 billion. Philip Anschutz took legal action after paying US$10 million for rights to a Clive Cussler novel that had supposedly sold 100 million copies. Anschutz's Sahara, based on the claimed best seller, turned out to be a turkey, a failure that of course may be attributable to what appeared on the screen rather than on the printed page. John Grogan's syrupy Marley & Me (New York: Morrow 2004) sold 1.85 million copies in hardcover by April 2007

A perspective on what is held by institutions is provided by the 2004 OCLC 'Top 1000' list, characterised as

the intellectual works that have been judged to be worth owning by the "purchase vote" of libraries around the globe

Intellectual or otherwise, the list identifies works that are most frequently held by OCLC member libraries.

The 'top ten' from those predominantly US institutions are

  • The US Census Report - 403,252 copies
  • The Bible - 271,534 copies
  • Mother Goose - 66,543 copies
  • The Divine Comedy
  • The Iliad
  • The Odyssey
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
  • Hamlet - 37,683 copies
  • The Lord of the Rings

followed by Garfield (as in the comic) at number 18. Useful if you are playing Trivia but otherwise of dubious value.

Greater insights may be provided by rankings of books borrowed from libraries and tracked as part of public lending right (PLR) schemes. They include -

In Australia over the period from 1974–75 to 2005–06 the 'top 50' Australian books (by times borrowed, with four authors accounting for 30 of the titles) were -

1 Bryce Courtenay Tommo & Hawk
2 Bryce Courtenay The Potato Factory
3 Paul Jennings Unbelievable! More Surprising Stories
4 Colleen McCullough The Thorn Birds
5 Paul Jennings Quirky Tails:More Oddball Stories
6 Paul Jennings Uncanny! Even More Surprising Stories
7 Colleen McCullough An Indecent Obsession
8 Bryce Courtenay Jessica
9 Bryce Courtenay Solomon’s Song
10 Paul Jennings Unmentionable! More Amazing Stories
11 John Marsden The Night is for Hunting
12 Mem Fox Possum Magic
13 Graeme Base The Eleventh Hour: a Curious Mystery
14 Paul Jennings Unreal! Eight Surprising Stories
15 John Marsden So Much To Tell You
16 Paul Jennings The Paw Thing
17 Sara Henderson The Strength in Us All
18 Paul Jennings Undone! More Mad Endings
19 Ruth Park The Harp in the South
20 Paul Jennings Unbearable: More Bizarre Stories
21 Paul Jennings Round the Twist
22 Bryce Courtenay Four Fires
23 Bryce Courtenay Matthew Flinders’ Cat
24 Graeme Base Animalia
25 John Marsden The Other Side of Dawn
26 AB Facey A Fortunate Life
27 Bryce Courtenay Brother Fish
28 Bryce Courtenay Smoky Joe’s Cafe
29 Paul Jennings Uncovered! Weird Weird Stories
30 Bryce Courtenay The Power of One
31 Sara Henderson From Strength to Strength
32 Morris Gleitzman Blabber Mouth
33 Ruth Park Playing Beatie Bow
34 Tim Winton Dirt Music
35 Paul Jennings The Gizmo
36 Colleen McCullough A Creed for the Third Millennium
37 Colleen McCullough The Ladies of Missalonghi
38 John Marsden Burning for Revenge
39 Jill Bruce Flags and emblems of Australia
40 Jeannie Baker The Story of Rosy Dock
41 Di Morrissey Barra Creek
42 Sally Morgan My Place
43 Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda
44 Melina Marchetta Looking for Alibrandi
45 Paul Jennings The Cabbage Patch Fib
46 Paul Jennings The Gizmo Again
47 Morris West Masterclass
48 Ruth Park Missus
49 Di Morrissey The Songmaster
50 Matthew Reilly Scarecrow

Who will be the Charles Garvice or Nat Gould of our epoch?

Why We Read What We Read (New York: Sourcebooks 2007) by Lisa Adams & John Heath cast a cold eye on recent US best-sellers, concluding that US 'mass market' readers -

  • prefer happy endings
  • enjoy simplistic answers that validate rather than question current values
  • read for plot and character with little interest in literary style.
  • confuse spirituality with self-improvement and with financial success
  • seek fiction that reinforces gender roles (women are carers, men are providers)

There is no reason to believe that mass audiences in other nations are substantially different.

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version of February 2008
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