The Year in Best-Sellers

What Happened to 2017? A Gentleman in Moscow, perhaps.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock.

Talk to anyone who worked in book publishing this year and no matter how chipper the conversation may begin, once you’re a few drinks in the talk will turn gloomy. Sales are flat, or down. There have been no market-defining breakout hits, no hot new genres to plump up the annual earnings statement. Everyone blames this on the election and the news. Books are the intellectual equivalent of slow food; you know it’s better for you and tastes better, too, but you’re too rushed and frantic to care as you white-knuckle it through an avalanche of push alerts. So even for a notoriously Eeyore-ish industry—you can find people lamenting the decline of the book business in issues of trade magazine Publishers Weekly dating back to the 1920s—2017 was a grim year.

2017 was the year that the very concept of a best-seller became even more dubious. In August, a onetime actress and band manager, Lani Sarem, published her first YA novel, Handbook for Mortals, hiring a company to engineer its placement on the New York Times best-seller list. The Times compiles its list by surveying a carefully curated and ostensibly top-secret array of bookstores. This is supposed to provide its readers with a more useful list of the books people are actually buying by filtering out bulk, promotional, and other fluke sales. The Times’ method is, however, vulnerable to being gamed by anyone who can first identify the booksellers who report to the paper and then order large numbers of copies from them. That is exactly what Sarem’s hirelings did. Her shenanigans were sniffed out in August by a member of the tightknit and often ferociously self-protective YA Twitter scene, author Phil Stamper. Eventually, the uproar over the matter prompted the Times to remove the book from its list.

“Why can’t they just count up all the books that have sold?” a friend once asked me when I described the Times’ baroque method for calculating its list. But books aren’t movies, which are made available in a limited number of theaters that are able to instantly report the number of tickets they dispense over the film’s opening weekend. Books slowly make their way to a bewildering number of outlets, ranging from small gift shops, book fairs, and drugstores to big-box retailers, many of whom can’t or won’t provide timely and accurate figures. CEOs and the pastors of megachurches, as well as certain political figures, have been known to buy, directly or indirectly, crates of their own books to give away to friends and associates. Those books are certainly sold, but not to individual readers with a genuine interest in them, so those sales don’t tell us much about how popular a book truly is. Then there are e-books, the leading retailer of which, Amazon, refuses to release sales figures.

In fact, Amazon produces so many niche bestseller lists—in topics ranging from “Crafts, Hobbies and Home” to “Engineering and Transportation”—that many a book can claim Amazon best-seller status while only moving a couple of hundred copies. (The current top 10 in Engineering and Transportation includes both a biography of Elon Musk and a 1978 children’s picture book about trucks.) The closest thing the industry has to a reliably meaningful record of what books actually sell are the figures issued by Nielsen BookScan and used by Publishers Weekly. BookScan only counts cash register sales of print books, so its numbers don’t represent the totality of book sales by any means. What percentage of sales its figures capture varies depending on the book’s genre, but a rough rule of thumb followed by those inside the big houses is that a BookScan number gets you about 75 percent of the way to the real number.

What does a best-seller list tell you about the year we’ve gone through? It depends which best-seller list you break down. Peruse the New York Times list of nonfiction best-sellers, for example, and you’ll see the classic portrait of a nation divided, with polemics and exposés from both right and left duking it out. Look at BookScan’s top 10 of all titles sold from week to week, a list that includes fiction, and the picture changes to a placid scene in which familiar voices following familiar formulas—James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel—preside over an order that changes only incrementally from week to week. A few other titles flicker in and out of the frame like fireflies: diet books, inspirational treatises, the memoirs of TV and sports personalities. In May and June, the graduation-gift books arrive like a swarm of black flies: Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is the perennial favorite, but retired Navy Adm. William H. McRaven’s tough-love exhortation, Make Your Bed, based on a 2014 commencement address, had a pretty good run this year, too.

Only a handful of overtly political books broke through this tranquil surface in 2017. First and foremost—among political books, but also among pretty much all books—was Hillary Clinton’s memoir, What Happened, which sold 167,000 copies its first week according to BookScan and kept on trucking through the fall. This Fight Is Our Fight by Elizabeth Warren and Understanding Trump by Newt Gingrich made brief appearances on BookScan’s top 10. Rediscovering Americanism and the Tyranny of Progressivism by radio personality Mark R. Levin had a bit more staying power. But the sales of every non-Clinton political book were easily dwarfed by those of the latest John Grisham or, for that matter, Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is one of those titles that never hits the No. 1 spot but ends up selling far more copies over time than the hot screed of the moment. A couple of perennial best-selling authors, however, performed considerably below their previous numbers this year. Dan Brown sold 144,759 copies of Origin in its first week out. That’s a staggering amount, but less than half of the first-week sales of his previous blockbuster, 2013’s Inferno, and Inferno’s first week was less than half as impressive as that of Brown’s 2009 novel, The Lost Symbol.

Brown isn’t the only franchise whose brand appears to be cooling. Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have been raking it in for several years with their Killing series of page-turning popular histories. These books aren’t overtly polemical—unlike O’Reilly’s other titles, authored on his own—and the most popular volume in the series, Killing Patton, sold 163,208 copies during its first week of publication in 2014. Last year’s Killing the Rising Sun also did well—144,657 copies sold—in its first week. But the most recent installment, Killing England, moved only 64,723 copies during its first week in September. This is almost certainly due to O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News earlier this year, and with it his inability to hawk the new book on TV every weeknight. With O’Reilly out of commission, Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends is clearly hoping to don the mantle of Fox News personality lending his brand to ghostwritten potboilers that burnish all the annoying moral nuance out of American history. His Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny has loitered around the midsection of the list for the past few weeks.

Leveraging a massive publicity platform is one of the few proven methods of selling a lot of books, but the media has become so balkanized that many best-selling authors are “celebrities” invisible to most of the nation: YouTube stars, radio hosts, reality TV contestants. The Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has enjoyed a degree of popularity few poets would dare to hope for. Her work, by turns mawkishly sentimental and quotably confessional, makes her the Rod McKuen of her generation. Kaur’s success—her new book, The Sun and Her Flowers, sold more than 75,000 copies in its debut week last month and has racked up a total of 252,602 sales in the month or so since—isn’t entirely due to her ability to produce lines like “i do not want to have you/ to fill the empty parts of me/ i want to be full on my own.” She has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, where her fame was initially spurred when a self-portrait in pajamas stained with period blood was banned by the platform. In a paradox worthy of our late, decadent stage of internet culture, Kaur’s career is dependent on Instagram both because it puts her on millions of teenagers’ cellphones and because she is seen as having defied it.

Meanwhile, in fiction, the psychological thriller rooted in domestic and sexual tension—the long tail of Gone Girl—remains a thriving genre. “Readers aren’t sick of those books, but everyone in the book business is,” one editor told me. Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, published a new novel in 2017, but less prominent writers like Ruth Ware (The Woman in Cabin 10) and Shari Lapena (The Couple Next Door) are producing a stream of titles capitalizing on the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for this style. There’s also been a boomlet in books that signal their no-nonsense, masculine swagger by using profanity in their titles. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson lets you pretend you’re not reading a lightweight self-help book, while Fuck, That’s Delicious by the burly, bearded rapper Action Bronson assures all who see it in your kitchen that you don’t cook like some girl.

There have even been a few literary titles scratching around the lower reaches of the best-seller list. Some are timely nonfiction, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power or J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a 2016 title that just keeps on selling to readers seeking insights on the residents of Trumpland. Others, like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, have won marquee prizes. “There have been only two dark-horse hits this year,” one publicist told me morosely, “and they were both from last year.” He was referring to Hillbilly Elegy and Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel about a Russian count who is spared by the Bolsheviks in 1922, on the condition that he accepts an indefinite house arrest at the Metropol, a posh Moscow hotel. Unlike Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, it won no major awards, and unlike Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, it isn’t the work of an established and beloved novelist. But by the end of September, A Gentleman in Moscow remained on the fiction list after those other, more celebrated books had dropped off, selling a BookScan total of 210,276 hardcover copies a year after its release.

Towles’ secret isn’t revelatory. His book received no pivotal press coverage, like the interview in American Conservative that vaulted Hillbilly Elegy into the public eye. But booksellers, especially independents, loved his first novel, 2011’s Rules of Civility, and they love Towles, too. Renowned for his charm, he has toured tirelessly. Then there’s the book itself: A Gentleman in Moscow seems to appeal to men and women almost equally. It’s about both a small town (the microcosm of the hotel) and a big city caught up in historic upheaval. And last, but far from least, Towles’ novel is also about a gentleman, an archetype that seems increasingly hard to find in real life these days. If you want to lose yourself in a book, why settle for anything less than a total escape from reality?

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.