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Harry Potter Forever?

24 January 2019

When PG checked out Amazon Charts this morning, he discovered that Harry Potter occupied six of the top ten positions on the Most Read Fiction chart.

The Most Read chart ranks books by the average number of daily Kindle readers and Audible listeners each week. Given Amazon’s domination of the ebook world, Charts should be a reasonably-accurate of the behavior of English-language ebook reader behavior.

If PG’s grand-offspring are any indication, few in their generation will have any concern about reading ebooks (although they still like physical books as well). Plus a cast-off operating Kindle ereader works as well for book-length text as a new tablet or ereader does, so the younger generation in a family may benefit from the occasional hand-me-down or obsolescent device.

In a perfect world for those who are curious about human behavior, there would be some sort of means by which Amazon could track which of the hardcopy books it sold were Most Read so the behavior of ebook and printed book fans could be compared.

On the non-fiction side of Amazon Charts, Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming,  is ranked first in both the Bestselling and Most Read charts.

Observers of human behavior have long observed that people will sometimes purchase non-fiction bestsellers that they don’t manage to read. For example, Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is notorious as a book which is started, but not finished. It is the standard against which all other purchased-but-unread books are measured.

From a 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Dr. Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison:

It’s beach time, and you’ve probably already scanned a hundred lists of summer reads. Sadly overlooked is that other crucial literary category: the summer non-read, the book that you pick up, all full of ambition, at the beginning of June and put away, the bookmark now and forever halfway through chapter 1, on Labor Day. The classic of this genre is Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” widely called “the most unread book of all time.”

How can we find today’s greatest non-reads? Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read. (Disclaimer: This is not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only!) Here’s how some current best sellers and classics weigh in, from highest HI to lowest:

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt: 98.5%
This seems like exactly the kind of long, impressive literary novel that people would carry around ostentatiously for a while and never finish. But it’s just the opposite. All five top highlights come from the final 20 pages, where the narrative falls away and Ms. Tartt spells out her themes in a cascade of ringing, straight-out assertions.

“Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins: 43.4%
Another novel that gets read all the way through. “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them” is the most highlighted sentence in the seven-year history of Kindle, marked by 28,703 readers. Romantic heat in the late going also helps to produce a high score.

. . . .

“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking: 6.6%
The original avatar backs up its reputation pretty well. But it’s outpaced by one more recent entrant—which brings us to our champion, the most unread book of this year (and perhaps any other). Ladies and gentlemen, I present:

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty: 2.4%
Yes, it came out just three months ago. But the contest isn’t even close. Mr. Piketty’s book is almost 700 pages long, and the last of the top five popular highlights appears on page 26. Stephen Hawking is off the hook; from now on, this measure should be known as the Piketty Index.

Link to the rest at the Wall Street Journal 

PG notes that the standards applied to Amazon Charts (average number of daily Kindle readers and Audible listeners each week) and the Hawking Index (how many people stopped reading a book before finishing it) are different, but he finds both interesting.

Amazon provides another interesting collection of data in its list of The 10 longest sales streaks at No. 1 in Amazon history

Harry Potter has four of the top 10 streaks, but Michelle Obama is also on the list and, given current sales trends, may climb higher.

 

Amazon, Bestsellers, Ebooks

13 Comments to “Harry Potter Forever?”

  1. The most unread book of the year is most likely one that doesn’t have any sells.

  2. All of the Harry Potter books are available from the Kindle Lending Library, which is free to Prime users. True, you can only read one a month, but still…

  3. The index is flawed: it doesn’t factor in the number of people that don’t consider anything in the book worth highlighting or those who don’t highlighting to start with.

    What the index says is that the people who use Kindle highlighting and were willing to slog through THE GOLDFINCH found passages worth highlighting in the end of the book.

    I put more trust in the KOBO report that 56% of the readers of the book abandoned it before the end. It wasn’t the worst that year, though. Conversely, the most finished author should surprise no one: Patterson.

    https://publishingperspectives.com/2014/12/havent-finished-reading-bestseller-youre-not-alone/

    As to Harry Potter, the series might remain a top seller indefinitely. The setting is timeless and the material appealing. As kids age out, a new cohort ages in. And the movies will keep on drawing in new readers.

    And the odds of another cultural phenomenon emerging at that scale grow smaller every year because of audience dilution.

    • Probably a remnant of my early raising (where “scribbling” in books was a capital offense), but I highlight absolutely nothing in books – dead tree or electrons.

      It used to be that I could get a feel for print books by visiting the used book store – what was the condition of their offerings? Hawkings’ book was usually just barely “good” condition (which also described most of the Harry Potter volumes to be found).

      On the other hand, if you ran across an Ayn Rand, it was usually well-nigh new.

      Popular history books seem to run the gamut, though. I have run across volumes of the Churchill war histories in pristine condition – and in almost the same sad condition as the poor things sitting on the shelf next to me.

    • I always have popular highlights turned off: why would I ever want to know what a bunch of strangers have highlit?

      I kind of supposed that I therefore don’t contribute to popular highlights but could Amazon be collecting them anyway? If they are they’ll not be illuminating as the only things I highlight are typos and similar errors in case I want to tell the author about them (or correct them in my de-DRMed version of the book).

      • If they are they’ll not be illuminating as the only things I highlight are typos and similar errors in case I want to tell the author about them (or correct them in my de-DRMed version of the book).

        Those are precisely what I highlight when I highlight at all. And then I use the feature on my Kindle to report the typos and such (I assume those either get back to the author directly, or Amazon passes it on).

        Test definitely flawed.

  4. For The Goldfinch, my guess is that a lot of people who stop before the end then quickly go check out the last few pages, feel virtuous, and don’t bother reading the middle parts.

    98% is not credible.

    • Smart Debut Author

      The metric they are using is broken.

      According to Kobo reader analytics (an objective measure), the percentage of Goldfinch readers that finished the book was only 44%.

  5. I suspect that books by politicians are among the least read.

    How many people bought Becoming, Dreams From My Father, and Hard Choices and actually read them?

    And any forthcoming book by Trump will share the same fate.

  6. Highlights are an observation that can lead to a hypothesis, but there is no testing of the hypothesis. In this case the hypothesis is “Highlights are a reliable sample of readers of a given book.” Conclusions based on an untested hypothesis tell us nothing.

  7. “Highlights are a reliable sample of readers of a given book.”
    Most of my “highlights” are from resting a finger on the screen.

  8. Funny how revisionist literary history works.

    Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the gold standard for “books that no one finishes”:

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/10/donna-tart-shamed-by-e-reader-the-goldfinch

    Kobo – the e-bookseller – has released two sets of figures: for books bought this year, and for books finished. The Goldfinch was its 37th best-selling book, but only 44% of those who started it managed to complete it.

    https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/josephbernstein/publishers-know-you-didnt-finish-the-goldfinch-heres-what-th

    … in addition to more traditional engagement analytics like read-through rates, Lee told BuzzFeed News that “so many things matter more, like getting a Nobel Prize winner or a Booker Prize winner.”

    Guess I’m naive — I always thought readers finding your book unputdownable was the highest accolade. Shows how much I know.

  9. Smart Debut Author

    Funny how revisionist literary history can be.

    Just a few years ago, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the gold standard example of “books that most people don’t finish”:

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/10/donna-tart-shamed-by-e-reader-the-goldfinch

    Kobo – the e-bookseller – has released two sets of figures: for books bought this year, and for books finished. The Goldfinch was its 37th best-selling book, but only 44% of those who started it managed to complete it.

    https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/josephbernstein/publishers-know-you-didnt-finish-the-goldfinch-heres-what-th

    … in addition to more traditional engagement analytics like read-through rates, Lee told BuzzFeed News that “so many things matter more, like getting a Nobel Prize winner or a Booker Prize winner.”

    Guess I’m naive — I always thought readers finding your book unputdownable was the highest accolade. Shows how much I know.

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