Alex Hamilton's paperback fastsellers of 1999

<p>Alex Hamilton's look at the paperback fastsellers of 1999</p><p>

The term "bestseller" was coined in the US around 1912. Before that, writers had "booms". The most notable boom of the 1890s was caused by Trilby, a three-volume melodrama about an artist's model who was fashioned into a superstar by a mesmerist, Svengali. Its author, Punch cartoonist George du Maurier, offered his idea to Henry James. However, James persuaded his friend that with his knowledge of Parisian vie de boh&egrave;me, he should write it himself. Its succ&egrave;s fou astounded both men. The publisher, Osgood &amp; McIlvaine, was initially cautious, as may be inferred from its offer of an advance of &pound;500 against a 25% royalty.

The serialisation of the novel in Harper's Weekly increased circulation of the magazine by 100,000 copies. Subsequently, a hat was named after the book, a kitchen range, shoes, haberdashery, even children and a town in Florida. In Britain, His Majesty's theatre was built on the proceeds of a musical based on the novel. Sadly, du Maurier himself was disenchanted. Henry James saw that his friend's pleasant sense of having done well was deprived of all sweetness, all privacy and all sanctity. Du Maurier found himself sunk in a landslide of illusions, of inane, incongruous letters, of interviewers and invaders. Du Maurier's other more serious novel was a lame duck. He said bitterly: "I hold that a boom means nothing as a sign of literary excellence, nothing but money."

James tried to pick up the pieces. "Let us," he urged the wretched author, "find a seat and endeavour--if it is in any way possible to arrive at a solution--to discover some reason for such a phenomenon as the success of Trilby."</p><p>
The big boom of the 1990s is still booming. J K Rowling's books for children about the adventures of schoolboy wizard Harry Potter are known to their publisher, Bloomsbury, as HP1, HP2 and HP3 (HP4 is published next June; the Warner Brothers film of HP1 will be released in 2001). Sales in Britain so far for the three hardbacks (priced at &pound;10.99) are 1,657,046 (HP3, the 1999 title, has already sold 1,032,024 copies). HP2 is in the paperback fastsellers chart for 1999, while simultaneously the 1997 title, HP1, has added 1,223,800 to its 254,056 of former years. Were it not for my rule of charting books only published in paperback in Britain for the first time in the calendar year, HP1 would be the clear leader.</p><p>
Total sales of Harry Potter titles, including fancy editions at &pound;18 and editions for adults (87,949 so far) who blush if seen with a children's book, are 4,159,884. In the US, where Scholastic is Rowling's publisher, there are 17.7 million copies in print of the three hardbacks plus HP1 in paperback, and sales could reach 16 million.</p><p>
At Bloomsbury I asked editorial director Liz Calder if there was a reason for Harry's success. "Roz de la Hey," she said, "our children's marketing director. We hadn't read it, but she went on and on and wouldn't shut up until we said `we'll publish'." Smarties awards were forthcoming and the book became a craze with children, like yo-yos.</p><p>
I asked other publishers to recall titles that caused similar reading frenzies. For Pan's marketing director Michael Halden, Jaws sprang to mind. "Our biggest success--and our greatest mistake. We were reprinting in tranches of 500,000, because the demand was too great to do fewer. We sold four million copies, put in another 500,000 reprint, and the market suddenly went flat." Could that happen today? "To be honest, it could. With our Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?quiz book, we have to reprint 100,000 at a time."</p><p>
For Mark Barty-King, Transworld m.d., the epiphanic moment was--well, actually, the 255 weeks that A Brief History of Time spent as a top 10 hardcover, 60 of them at number one. It was the book you had to have and be seen to have. Reprinting every minute, eventually it totalled 550,000 copies. It was plainly a wrench to publish as a paperback to satisfy poor students. But again, it sold 750,000 copies. Not bad.</p><p>
Hodder m.d. Martin Neild remembered Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally as an unassuming bestseller, whose sales of 30,000 copies a year were no longer affected by its winning of the Booker Prize. But when the film "Schindler's List" was released, things really took off. The book went on sale in motorway service stations, Boots and supermarkets before they had even thought of stocking books.</p><p>
Random House chairman and chief executive Gail Rebuck relived the television programme that put Captain Corelli's Mandolinback in the limelight. It has now sold 1,292,214 copies. M.d. Simon Master offered a more recent example. In a year of discounting and further discounting, the grotesque Hannibal sold 656,001 copies, without benefit of book club or special offers. This has a dire impact on sales of other books, says Master, because most people do not buy more than one hardback in a year. (These days it is Delia Smith, the Marguerite Patten of the 1990s, who can command sales of around a million for each new title.)</p><p>
Meanwhile, John Grisham soldiers implacably on, number one for the decade, selling 387,012 copies of his new hardback The Testament. The figures in the chart this year take him over 12 million in Britain. In the US, The Pelican Brief has sold almost as many copies on its own, and Grisham is estimated to have sold 60,742,288 copies from 10 thrillers. Stephen King comes second, having sold 40,877,577 books.</p><p>
For much of the decade Maeve Binchy has battled with Grisham at the top. She is more likely to produce a novel every two years, but hers are twice as long. Susan Lamb has been publishing her at Orion for the past four years, and Orion has already sold 4.5 million copies of her books. Maeve is a sure bet to sell a million copies of a new novel, Lamb says.</p><p>
But Lamb is not happy with the discounting farrago. Neither is Philippa Harrison, chief executive of Little, Brown. "We've just come across a fascinating statistic: that for hardbacks the average price we received from retailers in 1994 was a penny more than the average we expect to receive in 2000." There is a risk that with front-of-store price-driven books driving the trade, and online bookshops offering 50% off titles to win market share, customers will believe any title can be cheapened. "They don't know," says Little, Brown m.d. David Young, "whether the book has been discounted because it is a wonder or a failure." Harrrison and Young have no worries over author Patricia Cornwell, who put morgues centre stage and herself into the US top 10 selling authors for the 1990s.</p><p>
Indeed, nothing deters juggernauts. Reviewers flayed Jilly Cooper's new novel Score!, which promptly grew a new skin at number one, with hardback sales now standing at 183,712.</p><p>
Similarly, HarperCollins m.d. Adrian Bourne has no fear that recent events will affect Jeffrey Archer's sales one jot. If anyone can sell short stories it is Archer. In the past 20 years, among the 2,000 titles in the fastseller lists produced so far, only seven were collections of short stories, two of them by Archer.</p><p>
Helen Fraser, m.d at Penguin, was spoilt for choice. But Lady Chatterley's Lover imposed itself--even the book of the trial was a nice little earner. Lady Chatterley's Lover sold two million copies in the six weeks before Christmas 1960, and 1.3 million the following year. And lots more since. But then look at Penguin's track record: it has sold 3,793,014 copies of The Catcher in the Rye; 3,946,994 copies of 1984; and 5,602,726 copies of Animal Farm. But Allen Lane acquired those titles. Its biggest titles today include Alex Garland's The Beach, with sales of 679,270 and a film on the way, and a clutch of "city girl" authors. Most satisfying of all, perhaps, was Stalingrad, which achieved 60,000 hardback sales and 243,870 trade paperback sales. These kinds of figures, said Fraser, were unthinkable five years ago, when 10,000 and 30,000 respectively would have been good.</p><p>
In a year that has been hard and often anxious for the trade, some big figures for new hardcovers, albeit propped up by discounting, must have generated radiance among booksellers. Thus Terry Pratchett, whose 37 titles with Transworld have sold 1.75 million copies, sold 217,977 copies of his Doubleday hardback The Fifth Elephant. The Bantam Press edition of Geri Halliwell's If Only sold 211,040 copies. The Bridget Jones sequel, The Edge of Reason, from Picador, reached sales of 349,579, and Macmillan sold 318,484 copies of Wilbur Smith's Monsoon.</p><p>
On top of an accumulated 1,702,716 sales in paperback for his Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt achieved sales of 437,174 for 'Tis, while his stablemate at HarperCollins, John Major, achieved sales of 120,888 (which apparently covers the cost, whatever that may have been). It remains to be seen how these titles now fare as paperbacks. Some are "natural" hardbacks, as acknowledged by Sir Alex Ferguson's publisher at Hodder, who says nevertheless that he'll be disappointed if Managing My Life, having sold 480,715 copies in hardcover, sells fewer than 250,000 in paperback.</p><p>
It is hard to imagine that Century, a bravura photographic compilation weighing 10lbs from Phaidon Press (&pound;29.95), will ever be a paperback. However, it deserves my "radiance award" for this year, having sold 405,375 copies.</p><p>
This year, 139 new paperbacks sold more than 100,000 copies, 10 more than the previous record in 1998 (defying the belief that you can only sell more of fewer books). Among those just below the cut-off point on the chart are Mary Higgins Clark, Kathy Lette, Beryl Bainbridge and Colleen McCullough. Between them the top 100 authors this year sold 27,941,894 books (up from 25.4 million the year before) for a return to retailers of &pound;181.8m (up from &pound;171.1m). For both years the money is notional--10% or so may have to be deducted for discounting. The commonest price points are &pound;5.99 (59 titles) and &pound;6.99 (25 titles)--very little change from last year.</p><p>
With few exceptions, the format for publication of a title is now orthodox: mass market published in A format; literary books in B; and original publication, or high-profile authors with an extra edition, in C or trade paperback. It is the C edition, much preferred by Australian booksellers, that carries the hopes of many newcomers who cannot attract custom at hardcover prices. The only new entrant into the top 25 of authors is J K Rowling. Elsewhere in the top 100 are 14 more new arrivals.</p><p>
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