In his book, Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999, Michael Korda, who was the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster for many years, and the author of a number of bestsellers himself gives us a history of the book business and how it changed over the years as well as a list of bestsellers (both fiction and non-fiction) for each year from 1900 to 1999. His perspective is unique, I think, because he was an insider in the book business. Here are some of the interesting tidbits from his book.
- There are a few types of books in the nonfiction category that recur throughout the 20th Century: home and garden care; how to raise children; figuring out what’s wrong with you, and how to fix it (self-help); cookbooks, and diet books. Is there possibly a link between the last two?
- Winston Churchill wrote a number of bestselling novels in the early part of the 20th century. No, not that Churchill; the Winston Churchill from Saint Louis, Missouri. He and the more famous Winston Churchill met and exchanged letters occasionally, and agreed that the British statesman and author would include his middle initial (S for Spencer) to distinguish himself from the American novelist.
- The Bible is undoubtedly the best-selling book in history, but it was literally number one on the non-fiction bestseller list in 1951, 1952, and 1953 because in 1951 Nelson Publishing released the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Then The Living Bible made its debut in 1972 and topped the non-fiction bestseller list for two years.
- Before the great depression book publishers sent booksellers copies of their books with a no-return policy. When the great depression began booksellers often found themselves with lots of unsold books on their hands due to the rampant poverty of the time. As a temporary measure the publishers relented, and agreed to essentially send books to their customers on consignment. After the depression ended, the publishers decided to continue their consignment policy.
- While novels have traditionally been a few hundred pages long, books in the category of historical fiction (a genre which many credit Sir Walter Scott with starting) have usually been much longer – sometime running to 600 or 700 pages.
- The first book published by Simon and Schuster had some people (including some within the company) wondering if it was a “book” at all. The problem was that it did not exactly meet the commonly accepted definition of a book. It was, in fact a book that you wrote in – a book of crossword puzzles. The company was so concerned that it would be considered a laughing stock that the book was initially published under the name of a fake publishing company. When the book became a bestseller, Simon and Schuster began to publish it under its own name.
- The company called Pocket Books was formed in the 1930s to produce paperback copies of hardcover books, and to sell them for 25 cents each. However, paperbacks weren’t even mentioned much less sold in bookstores. Instead paperbacks, which were distributed by magazine wholesalers, were sold in drugstores, at newsstands, and in assorted other stores. By the early ‘60s bookstores were grudgingly selling paperbacks and some booksellers even began to discount hardcover books.
- A Supreme Court decision in 1949 allowed the sale of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the United States. No longer did one have to go to Paris to buy such books, and then smuggle them in through U. S. Customs. The court decision also served to open the publishing business to a spate of sexually explicit books that were, after a while, prominently displayed and sold in mainstream bookstores.
- Some things never change. One is that certain authors have a knack for writing one bestseller after another. Some authors from the early part of the 20th Century who had multiple best sellers are Winston Churchill, Mary Johnson, George Barr McCutcheon, Mary Roberts Rinehart, John Fox, Jr., Eleanor H. Porter, Booth Tarkington and Frances Hodgson Burnett.