I’ve been fascinated by best sellers for a long time. One of the main attractions has been how the very concept obscures the distinction between great literature, or ‘culture’, and the financial success we all see as the only real value in life: our reactions are likely to be cultural one moment, and materialistic the next. (Let’s leave aside just now the even more confusing idea that culture is only a by-product and manifestation of wealth and power designed to impress competitors).

Like everybody else I have a number of favourite and influential books and films, and I’m well aware that the usual estimate of many of them is that they are trashy. So it’s a comfort to think that enough other people thought they were good to make the authors wealthy.

Nostalgic bestsellers
As a child I went to the movies every Saturday. Mighty Mouse was usually on the bill. I had no idea the ‘toon was a parody of Victorian melodrama, but when Oil Can Harry tied Pearl Pureheart to the railroad tracks, to be rescued at the last minute by an opera singing Mighty Mouse who held the train stationary with one hand while untying Pearl, I cheered with the rest of the audience. Mighty Mouse has the bright, vivid sheen of novelty still: somewhere I’m still seeing him for the very first time. He was popular for a long period, from about 1940 to 1980, as a cartoon, a TV serial, a Marvel Comic and soon a movie.

Another movie favourite in those days was the Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger has had an even longer history, from the ’30s to the turn of the century, and qualifies as a major cultural icon for millions, while seen to be quite silly by sophisticates now, because the idea behind the episodes was so earnest and moral. My peers in the movie audience, a little more jaded than when we thrilled to Mighty Mouse, would answer the narrator at the end of the cliffhanger: as he was hurled, tied and gagged, over the cliff, the narrator would cry, “Will the Lone Ranger survive? Will he rid the town of these evil bandits?”. The audience, my audience, cried out in unison “Yes!”, and the more bored members rolled jaffas down the wooden floor boards. We had all the answers. We could answer “Who was that masked man?” and knew the name of Tonto’s horse.

A more literary experience (I use the term loosely) was Tarzan. Tarzan was a character in books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs as far as I was concerned. When I was 12 years old I thought Burroughs a very great writer. The film Tarzans seemed by comparison a little lifeless (I missed Maureen O’Sullivan’s nude scene in Tarzan and His Mate, and her almost non-existent loin cloth, or I might have been more interested). But Burroughs’ evocation of hidden cities decaying in the jungle, piles of jewels covered by creepers and Tarzan swinging from vine to vine and foiling the corrupt intruders into his domain I found fascinating. At an earlier age I had loved the Mowgli books of Kipling, and Tarzan semed a natural extension, a little more exciting and glamourous and mysterious. This was an impression I regained when I read as an adult the Venus and Mars series of novels by Burroughs, definitely one of the great romancers.

And there were the Doctor Doolittle books of Hugh Lofting. I read every one, enthralled at the idea of speaking to the animals.

My interior world, populated by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Doctor Doolittle and the Pushmepullyou, Tarzan and the Lone Ranger and Mighty Mouse as well as Biggles and Gimlet and the Scarlet Pimpernal and the Phantom, wasn’t a place where the concept of best sellers had any meaning. And the works in which these characters appear never feature in any list of best sellers. These creations spanned many media, and no one has kept a count of series titles, movie versions, adaptations for radio and television, and comics. These viewing and reading experiences were at a level far more pervasive than mere numbers can account for. They are personal, nostalgic, best sellers. Let’s try a list (of course I’ve made up the number of readers, viewers and listeners):

1. Walt Disney comics and cartoons (500 million readers and viewers)
2. The Lone Ranger series (500 million readers, viewers and listeners)
3. The romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs (100 million)
4. The Doctor Doolittle stories (80 million)
5. The Phantom comics, books and movies (50 million)
6. Mighty Mouse cartoons, comics, radio series and movie (50 million)
7. The adventure stories of Capt. WE Johns (30 million)
8. The romances of Baroness Orczy (10 million).

When I grew up I had my favourite books, and kept an account of them. Numbers don’t matter, this is my personal list, though most titles would be on other people’s lists. Here they are:

The financial perspective
When I looked at bestsellers as others see them I found there were several approaches taken. Firstly, it seems generally conceded that there is no accurate account of what sells, no way to co-ordinate the various sources of information accurately. So the financial approach is only an approximation. Just as we can’t really measure the extent of the books and films we grew up with, neither can we tell exactly what sells the most. Many lists published though give similar titles (of course this may be because those who publish such lists copy one another). All agree that religious works must be excluded, as many, perhaps most, copies of the Bible, Koran etc are given away, not sold. This immediately suggests the existence of another category, the most read books, but nobody has the ability to measure that.

Best Sellers generally accepted would include, in some order, the following (source: Wikipedia).

1. Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes 1615 (over 500 million)
2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens 1859 (200 million)
3. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry 1943 (200 million)
4. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien 1955 (150 million)
5. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien 1937 (100 million)
6. Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin 1759 (100 million)
7. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie 1939 (100 million)
8. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis 1950 (85 million)
9. She by H. Rider Haggard 1887 (83 million)
10. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown 2003 (80 million).

These are the books people have thought worth buying, for various reasons: because they liked them, because they had heard of them (and then maybe found them unreadable), because they conferred prestige and showed good taste, because they were on special.

Are we measuring how much money people have spent on books, or the books most heard of, or the books people with money to spend thought the best value (in prestige or perhaps just in weight), or the most influential books, or really the most popular and loved books? I had thought that titles like cookbooks would have featured at the top of the list, but they are further down. What we want most is a good story.

Having found a non-cultural measuring stick, let me muddy the water by pointing out that only three of these 10 titles are ‘literature’, or at least, ‘great literature’. Three are mediocre literature, and four tales of entertainment. You know the titles I mean.

Social considerations
Another way to look at best sellers is as social history. Nothing dates so quickly as a best seller, and top selling books of yesteryear are as obscure as past winners of the Oscar for best film, and tell us much about attitudes of their time. Claud Cockburn’s book Bestseller (Sidgwick and Jackson 1970) rescues many of these titles from obscurity. EM Hull’s The Sheik of 1921, condemned as pornography when published, and devoted to the concept that a woman can give her all if raped by a masterful enough man, yet not daring to confront the racism of the time by finally revealing the dark skinned Arab is really an English nobleman. The film made of the book, also in 1921, was the foundation of the fame of Rudolph Valentino. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, a prescient forecast of the military based expansionist plans of Germany which threatened the security of Britain, was published in 1903, and promptly treated as an enthralling adventure story (which it was, and is still) but ignored as political commentary. Childers was later involved in the Irish nationalist cause, and was murdered by the British forces after a summary trial without evidence. Both Childer’s fate, and that of his book, are a testimony to the reactionary and inert attitude on the part of the British government which helped make both the First World War, and the relationship with Ireland, the wasteful disasters they were. The yearning for fantasy and an escape from reality that indicated all was not idyllic in pre-war Britain is shown by the success of The Blue Lagoon by H De Vere Stackpoole of 1908, a slightly salacious Mills and Booner set on a desert island, or of The Broad Highway of Jeffrey Farnol of 1910, where all attempts at historical verisimilitude are abandoned in favour of a swashbuckling approach reminiscent of the movies.

Claud Cockburn’s list includes:
1903 The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
1904 The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens
1908 The Blue Lagoon by H De Vere Stackpoole
1910 The Broad Highway by Jeffrey Farnol
1916 Greenmantle by John Buchan
1921 The Sheik by EM Hull
1924 The Green Hat by Michael Arlen
1925 Sorrell and Son by Warwick Deeping
1932 Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
1935 National Velvet by Enid Bagnol.

The Publishers Weekly list of best selling books, which runs from 1900 to 2000 and includes 100 titles, has these for the first decade:
1900 To Have and To Hold, Mary Johnston
1901 The Crisis, Winston Churchill
1902 The Virginian, Owen Wister
1903 Lady Rose’s Daughter, Mary Augusta Ward
1904 The Crossing, Winston Churchill
1905 The Marriage of William Ashe, Mary Augusta Ward
1906 Coniston, Winston Churchill
1907 The Lady of the Decoration, Frances Little
1908 Mr. Crewe’s Career, Winston Churchill
1909 The Inner Shrine, anonymous (Basil King)
1910 The Rosary, Florence Barclay

The American novelist Winston Churchill was, like his British namesake, interested and prolific in both writing and painting, and involved with politics. At the turn of the century the American writer was much better known than the British one. Now he is forgotten, but six top sellers in little more than 10 years is an achievement few other writers have equalled.

It’s interesting to note the names of once famous authors on this list: Owen Wister, who wrote the iconic western The Virginian, and Zane Grey, author of an enormous list of western titles, many adapted into films, whose plots mixed furious action with romantic depictions of relationships. Edna Ferber, author of Cimarron, or Pearl S Buck, author of The Good Earth. Gone With the Wind was top of the list for both 1936 and 1937.

Included are authors still esteemed such as Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder and John Steinbeck whom nobody now thinks of as best sellers. And as we move into modern times authors whom nobody classifies as good or bad, merely successful, James Jones, Lloyd C Douglas, Leon Uris, Irving Stone, James A Michener, Jacqueline Susann, Arthur Hailey, Robert Ludlum, James Clavell, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and John Grisham, who gives Winston Churchill a run for his money, with five top sellers in five consecutive years 1994 -1998.

Both Cockburn, and John G Cawelti in Adventure, Mystery and Romance (UCP 1976), are aware of the impact of the cinema on the book market from the 30s onwards, but especially after the second world war. Cinema advertising reached into places undreamt of by publishers’ marketing firms, and that and the viewing of the films themselves transformed the reading experience of those who read the book on which a film was based. The impact of a book, and its readership, must be calculated differently before and between key events in publishing and marketing history, such as Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in 1439, or the British Education Act of 1870, or the invention of commercial films with sound from 1929, or the saturation marketing pioneered by George Lucas in 1977 with the first Star Wars film. So if you thought the first general list of best sellers was inaccurate, you are probably right. Any list that can put the Harry Potter books with Don Quixote has to be doing something wrong, as extent of the sales of Cervantes’ work is unknown until the 20th century, and it is impossible to calculate the sales of JK Rowling’s books without including the impact of the films. A list that attempts to compare sales of books marketed by a modern publisher with that of titles which have been in print for centuries and those part of series such as Star Wars or Nick Carter and those presented across differing media such as comics, radio, film and publishing is bound to be misleading.

As the publishing industry has grown, titles have been presented more and more to niche markets. Fantasy and SF have their best selling authors such as Frank Herbert (Dune); crime has Micky Spillane; humour has PG Wodehouse; romance has Barbara Cartland, and now a new sub genre of pornographic romance. These and other markets need to be assessed separately, because the readership rarely reads outside the genre.

Where does that leave the so-called classics? Some classics have been around for centuries, some on school and university reading lists for decades. Wouldn’t they be best sellers? Do we take account somehow of how many people listened to Homer’s poems for the almost 1,000 years before they were written down? Should we factor in how many people came to David Copperfield through the film starring WC Fields? Is studying a book, trying to understand the social commentary of War and Peace or the symbolism of Our Mutual Friend, at all related to reading it?

It seems clear that the really worthwhile thing to know is what impact a book had on its readers. It seems equally clear that cannot be measured. But as best seller lists make clear, neither can sales really. To be cynical for a moment, best sellers, like Oscars, are merely a form of advertising for a product which publishers (and film makers) are trying to make money from.

So if sales can’t be measured accurately and most figures be not only inadequate but misleading; if literary worth be hopelessly subjective (as a look at ‘classics’ over the years will reveal), what is a best seller? When it comes down to it, a best seller is merely a measure of a publisher’s income. Do we really want to do this? Is a book any better by having a good marketing program behind it? Sadly, no. But it sells more copies. So a best selling list needs to be supplemented with some other lists: lists of most discarded books; lists of most unread books; lists of most talked of books. I think it comes down to a personal list after all. We all have two: the books of childhood, full of magic we remember still, and the books we find now to be moving and which we occasionally reread.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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