Monday, March 14, 2011

Watching the Lists: what makes a bestseller?

I've mentioned before on the Reader that there are a few book podcasts I follow regularly—one of which is the New York Times' Book Review Podcast. On last week's edition of the podcast, an off hand comment caught my ear: the advice book What to Expect When You're Expecting had cracked its 500th week on the bestseller list. The piece that I heard was based on the weekly print feature called "Inside the List", which also noted that What to Expect When You're Expecting "has a ways to go before it catches up with M. Scott Peck’s self-help smash The Road Less Traveled, which spent 694 weeks on the list before disappearing over the horizon on April 6, 1997."

What makes a long term bestseller? In the case of What to Expect When You're Expecting, I think that there are a number of things going on. It's an advice book on a topic that a large portion of the population at some point need guidance on (becoming a parent). It's a classic that is recommended by doctors and between friends, and it has been published in several editions since first being released in 1984. Plus, I'd argue, it just plain has a catchy title.

Whether for finding out what the new hot releases are, or seeing what has staying power, to me, bestseller lists make for an fascinating glimpse into the collective reading brain, and do you know how probably agrees? The authors of these bestseller focused books:

Why We Read What We Read: a delightfully opinionated journey through contemporary bestsellers by Lisa Adams and John Heath. Based on a review of 15 years of bestseller lists from Publisher's Weekly and USA Today, it makes some interesting (and amusing) statements on what our collective reading says about us. A must read for any bestseller list fan.

Making the List: a cultural history of the American bestseller, 1900-1999 by Michael Korda. Like the Adams and Heath title, this one also looks at the cultural implications of bestseller lists, but takes a longer view with a little less irreverence.

The Making of a Bestseller: success stories from authors and the editors, agents, and booksellers behind them by Brian Hill and Dee Power. If you want some insight into how to write a bestseller yourself, you might find this worth a visit.

The Afterword by Mike Bryan. A first novel which takes the guise of the afterword to a fictional blockbuster novel about religion and modern life. Library Journal called it "clever", Publisher's Weekly said it was a "sly, minimalist debut" and Booklist dubbed it "a theological brainteaser, a literary koan, and a piquantly good read".

And if you just plain want to read a book that every one else has been reading, here are a few of the books with over 100 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers lists (as of March 20th):

The Alchemist
by Paulo Coelho (169 weeks)

The Tipping Point
by Malcolm Gladwell (335 weeks)

Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen (110 weeks)

Three cups of tea : one man's mission to fight terrorism and build nations, one school at a time
by Greg Mortenson (214 weeks)

Same Kind of Different as Me
by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent (102 weeks)

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett (101 weeks)

The Shack
by William P. Young (130 weeks)

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