Monday, 11 November 2013

Ridiculously Bestselling - Cathy Butler

Looking at the cover of Neil Gaiman’s latest book, Fortunately, the Milk, I was struck by the publisher’s description of the author as “Ridiculously Bestselling”. Of course, I knew what they meant: Neil Gaiman has certainly sold shedloads of books. (For those not familiar with the term, a “shedload” is enough for a writer to be able buy a shed.) Still, the phrase tugged at some bell-pull in my brain, waking the Hobgoblin of Pedantry from its feverish slumber. “'Best’ is a superlative," the Hobgoblin reminded me, "and superlatives don’t admit of degree. You’re either best selling or you’re not, and the only way to be best selling is to sell more copies than anyone else.  There Can Be Only One .”

“And who is that one?” I asked.

“The best-selling book in the world is the Bible,” replied the Hobgoblin. “A multi-authored work, with editing credits to the Synod of Hippo. Gaiman is only a Well Seller – perhaps a Very Well Seller.”

Hobgoblins are useful for asking awkward questions, but they seldom have all the answers. In fact, the phrase “best seller” was born as a marketing device, and it was always used to promote more than one book. Like many marketing ideas, this one comes from America. In the early days, at the end of the nineteenth century, newspapers listed the “Six Best Sellers”, but now the New York Times produces lists of anywhere between 10 and 15, in seventeen different categories, ensuring that there are around 200 best sellers at any one time. Given that publishers will continue to call a book “best selling” long after it has ceased to appear on the best seller lists (like “President”, it’s a title for life) there must be thousands of books in print that are entitled to the sobriquet, on the strength of the New York Times lists alone.

The fact that best seller lists are primarily about marketing rather than producing accurate statistics about the public’s buying habits was nowhere  more eloquently demonstrated than in the decision of the New York Times to create a Children’s Best Seller list in July 2000. The reason? The Harry Potter books were so popular that they had been dominating the fiction list for what some writers and publishers of adult fiction decided was too long. Best sellers ought to be thrillers about money and guns, by people like John Grisham and Tom Clancy, not children’s books by British women! A wambulance was duly called, and the children’s writers hived into a ghetto of their own.

The New York Times, in its quaint way, continues to refer to “Best Sellers”, but in recent decades these two words have increasingly been squidged into one, as Google Ngram (that useful measure of written usage) illustrates:

The change from "best seller" to "bestseller" may well be due in large part to the general fashion for word-squidging in modern English, but I suspect it also reflects that fact that the concept of “bestselling” is becoming detached from published lists altogether, and now functions as a general synonym for “popular”. Perhaps that was really what got my pedantic Hobgoblin’s attention after all.

No discussion of Best Seller Lists would be complete without a salutary glance at what was selling best a century or so ago. Here then is an Ozymandian moment, courtesy of Wikipedia – a list of the US best sellers of 1910:

1. The Rosary by Florence L. Barclay
2. A Modern Chronicle by Winston Churchill
3. The Wild Olive by Anonymous (Basil King)
4. Max by Katherine Cecil Thurston
5. The Kingdom of Slender Swords by Hallie Erminie Rives
6. Simon the Jester by William J. Locke
7. Lord Loveland Discovers America by C. N. Williamson and A. M. Williamson
8. The Window at the White Cat by Mary Roberts Rinehart
9. Molly Make-Believe by Eleanor Hallowell Abbot
10. When a Man Marries by Mary Roberts Rinehart

I think it’s fair to say that none of these is a household name in 2013. (And no, it’s not that Winston Churchill.) 


Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating! Thanks, Cathy!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Wonderful post - very interesting. Of course for people who have an academic interest in children's literature or modern fiction, reading the best-sellers is almost a job requirement...

Lari Don said...

What an interesting post! I loved the list of 1910 bestsellers, and might try to journey to the Kingdom of Slender Swords myself some time! Thanks!

Joan Lennon said...

I send greetings to your hobgoblin from mine -

John Dougherty said...

Really interesting! I couldn't resist looking up other books published in 1910 - as well as Howard's End & The History of Mr Polly, they include works by:
- Baroness Orczy
- LM Montgomery
- Gaston Leroux
- Herman Hesse
- Walter de la Mare
- Zane Grey
- Rudyard Kipling
- John Buchan
- L Frank Baum

sensibilia said...

Very interesting! I read somewhere once that a "best-seller" might only have sold 2,500copies but could still be classed as a best-seller for technical reasons. This post certainly sheds light on the subject. I love the idea of the Hobgoblin of Pedantry, and would be interested to read more of his observations. (Being a bit of a pedant myself!)

But what is a "wambulance"?

Catherine Butler said...

That's rather an encouraging second list, John! Perhaps those of us who are inexplicably not bestselling at the moment will turn out to be the Forsters, Orczys and de la Mares of our day.

Sensibilia - this may help explain the wambulance:

Ven n/a said...

I wonder how many books which weren't best sellers are considered classics now?

Karen said...

Fascinating - and I love Neil Gaiman's work.