Monday, 7 December 2009

Bestsellers and Blockbusters

Over at Tomorrowville, David Isaak is talking about how books are bought and sold and he quotes an interesting concept from a book called 'Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour'. In this book the author, William McPhee

'noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better.'

McPhee wrote his book in the USA (presumably based on US consumers' behaviour) in 1963. So I got to wondering – does the same thing hold good here in the UK in 2009?

I looked up Waterstones top 10 bestsellers on their website. The top 5 were either Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol (interestingly the ebook was at Number 1 and the hardback at Number 5 which probably tells us how many ebook readers have been acquired for Christmas presents) or one of Stephenie Meyer's YA vampire series (New Moon, Eclipse and Twilight at 2, 3 and 4 respectively).

OK, maybe the theory holds good for the Dan Brown; I know that lots of people who rarely read will succumb to buying a book that has received a lot of hype and whose predecessor made it into film. But is it true for the Stephenie Meyer books? All the young adults I know who have read the Twilight series (to say nothing of the adults) are absolutely avid readers and have just wombled this series up along with everything else in a voracious reading life. I'm aware that that probably says more about me and the reading habits of the people I associate with than about young adults in general, but still.

(I should probably admit that I have recently borrowed the Twilight oeuvre in its entirely, largely based on a laudatory review by Juxtabook here).

Number 6 is Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife. I loved TTTW and despite the considerable numbers of brickbats thrown at it, I don't think that it's the kind of book that people who don't habitually read books would buy. OK, it's probably at No 6 currently because of the film (sounds of my argument being shot in the foot) but it was made into a film in the first place because it's a massively good story, well told, and because it was a bestseller first time round!

Number 7. The Girl who played with Fire by Stieg Larsson. I am a huge fan of Larsson's work. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when nobody had heard of it simply because I plucked it off the shelf, intrigued by the title. I found it strange – like no crime novel I'd ever read before – but very satsifying and very good. I read the other two in hardback because I couldn't wait for them to make it to paperback. Now, I don't know whether the Larsson books qualify as 'books read by non-readers'. I think they may be bought by such because the covers suggest some degree of salaciousness from the eponymous girl but I suspect that they are read, in their entirety, by few people in that category. They are meticulous, interestingly crafted, psychologically satisfying and they don't always rattle through the story – sometimes you're obliged to think and consider. In other words they are not your standard blockbuster. So, do they fit McPhee's model? Not sure.

I don't think Waterstones' number 8 fits. It's Maeve Binchy's latest novel Heart and Soul and, though my own purchasing of Ms Binchy's books is probably not going to keep her in any particularly opulent manner, I do know that a lot of people are absolutely nuts about her books and buy them accordingly, not simply because they are hyped and piled high.

Number 9 is – coincidentally – the book I am reading at the moment, John le Carre's A Most Wanted Man. I haven't read any le Carre before but the Other Half has. She read this one and was complimentary about it. She said she thought I would enjoy it and, as she has a track record of being 100% right about books I would like , I'm reading it. She remains at 100%. I think le Carre falls into a niche just like Maeve Binchy – there are enough people who love his writing and who buy his books for their own sake for us not to fall back on McPhee's model to explain why he is in the top 10.

Number 10? It's the first in the Larsson trilogy. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If you haven't read it, I do recommend it. OK, so it's probably benefiting from the release of the third and last element of the trilogy – The Girl who Kicked The Hornet's Nest – now out in hardback (and at number 18 in the bestseller lists), but maybe it would be there anyway.

So, where does this leave us? Is the 'people who buy bestsellers/blockbusters don't buy other books and aren't really readers' model correct? Or is it out of date and US-biassed?


C. N. Nevets said...


I think it may just be a matter of percentages. Let me play with some completely fake numbers and purely contrived examples.

Snooty Lit Book by George Andrew R. McAllister III

Sold: 500,000 copies
Readerhsip: 90% Avid Readers, 10% Students enrolled in lit course in college

Trashy Blockbuster by Andy Action

Sold: 2 million copies
Readership: 25% Avid Readers, 60% Casual Readers, 15% Non-Readers

Same 500K people who bought the lit book might buy the blockbuster, but the percentage shifts because of scale.

At least, that was my take on it.

Alis said...

Brilliant, Nevets - thanks!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

I think Mr Nevets has put it nicely. Almost by definition a blockbuster has to be purchased largely by people who seldom purchase books.

In the case of "Twilight," sure, all the avid YA readers I know as well as many adults I know have read the series. But the majority of people buying can't possibly read much--otherwise I be living in a country where people read a lot, which I clearly don't.

I doubt it's a US-biased matter, either. After all, the article in question was in The Economist, not Time magazine. Plus the quintessential modern blockbuster writer has to be JK Rowling, and the original has to be Charles Dickens. It sounds like an American idea, and "blockbuster" sounds like an American word, but it might be a British invention...