I looked at fifty years of the books that dominated the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller List, starting in 1960 and continuing through 2009. My goal was to see what kind of book got on top and stayed there, and how this has changed over time.
To narrow down the massive number of titles, I focused on those which stayed on top for at least four weeks.
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The New York Times first began determining best-selling novels and non-fiction works on a national basis in 1942. Over the years, these lists have splintered to include competing lists. Among the categories they were divided into were paperbacks versus hardcover, print versus e-book, and children’s versus adult. Sublists have been added to distinguish trade from mass-market.
For these analyses, I examined the Adult Fiction Bestsellers.
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During the year 1960, only two novels held the number one spot: Advise and Consent by Allen Drury, carrying over from 1959 and Hawaii by James Michener which stayed on top for 49 weeks, spilling into 1961. They slugged it out, the top entry spot changing eleven times. Long stays on top of the list were common for the 1960s. Over the course of the decade, 31 novels took the number one spot for an average stay of 16.1 weeks.
During the year 2009, 37 different novels occupied the number one position, 31 of these for only one week. The average stay was 1.4 weeks. Over a remarkable period, one-week wonders climbed to the top spot for each of twenty consecutive weeks. Novels with four or more weeks at the number one position filled 47.7% of the weeks during the decade of the 2000s. If you exclude The Da Vinci Code, theGangnam Style of novels, this number drops to 36.4%.
What happened in between was a great splintering in the length of stay on the list. The value of being number one was quantified and incentives were written into book contracts for its achievement. The number one bestselling authors could demand higher speaker fees. The competition for the number one spot became fierce. The company ResultSource guarantees a number one position for a fee of $200,000. Their webpage has a disturbing minimalism. (This may be thought of as being the steroid period of American popular literature.)
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James Patterson Has Page Count Envy.
James Patterson is a machine for writing bestsellers. I don’t fault him for that: he knows how to give people what they want. He writes short novels which are printed out to appear to be long books. From 2005 to 2008 he had these six entries which stayed at least four weeks in the number one position on the bestsellers list*.
Year, Title, Page count, Word count
2005 Honeymoon, 393 pages, 65572 words
2005 4th of July, 392 pages, 68000 words
2005 Lifeguard, 394 pages, 71634 words
2005-06 Mary, Mary, 392 pages, 72436 words
2006 Judge and Jury, 421 pages, 74288 words
2008 Double Cross, 2008, 389 pages, 70753 words
*He had 16 total number one books during this period.
These average out to be 397 pages and 70447 words, or 177.4 words per page.