The quest for the money-making bestseller: Before the US passed copyright laws, their publishers stole UK books willy nilly

Just what is a bestseller? The scholar and literary critic John Sutherland calls the bestseller a snapshot of the age in which it is published. The interests and anxieties of a culture are on display within its pages, the author playing on the specific fears and obsessions that a decade later may well have faded.

Given that definition, sometimes a book is ahead of its time. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby did not make the bestseller list when published in 1925, but has since become one of the most studied novels ever (in American high schools, at least), and has been made into multiple movies (most recently in last year’s big Hollywood release).

So if you want timeless themes, read a so-called classic. If you want to know what makes a society tick at that particular point in time, read a bestseller. (Some books manage to straddle it all, but it’s not that easy to do.)

“America was peculiarly suited for the development of a popular fiction industry and its most dynamic manifestation: the bestseller,” writes Sutherland in a monograph.

“As a democracy, America came into being at the same time as the rise of the novel. With their revolutionary proclamations, the new state’s founders enshrined rights to freedom of expression and the pursuit of happiness. Bestsellers aim to supply those commodities.”

Indeed, before the United States government reluctantly passed copyright legislation in 1891, American publishers stole and reprinted British books at will, and to great profit. Even so, prices were lower in the U.S., and sales efforts much more hard-edged. In America, reading was affordable and intended for all, and for purchase. In the UK, books were more expensive yes, but libraries bought them for their patrons, and thrived.

“The differential persists… to this day. A hardback American bestseller is still marginally easier on the pocket than its UK equivalent.”

The American trade magazine Publisher’s Weekly first issued a bestseller book list in 1912. A year later the tally was split in two — for fiction, and another for non-fiction.

Nowadays, chart-busters are a source of controversy. Romance novels and Christian-based fiction often outsell what’s on the bestseller lists. It all depends on where the raw data’s coming from. (Despite the fact that almost everyone owns one, you’ll never find a dictionary on a bestseller list.) Last week, the Globe And Mail offered eight hot seller lists online, in various permutations and genres, including Cooking, Juvenile, Self-Improvement, Canadian, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Hardcover, and Paperback.

The week’s Globe Top Five Canadian novels:
1) Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels
2) Now You See Her, by Joy Fielding,
3) Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014, by Alice Munroe
4) All My puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews
5) Fingal O’Reilly, Irish Doctor: An Irish Country Novel, by Patrick Taylor.

Michaels’ book has won multiple literary prizes; that kind of attention can push a great but overlooked book up to the top of the bestsellers lists. But how many sales makes for a bestseller? There’s no answer.

One blockbuster in December can sell hundreds of thousands more than the one that tops the New York Times list six months down the line. And here’s another oddity: a book may not be a bestseller, but an author might be. No single novel by the great and prolific mystery writer Agatha Christie ever made it to number one, Sutherland writes. Yet her book sales in toto total at least 2 billion worldwide. Ditto for the late romance writer Barbara Cartland and thriller king Edgar Wallace (he died in the 1930s), both of whom produced dozens of beloved books that still sell steadily, years after their deaths. Bestseller status is based on sales in a week or a month, not over years of steady love by the purchasing public.

While there is much handwringing these days about the death of books and bookshops, Lennoxville is blessed. Not only is there a well-stocked library, there are in fact two (in addition to the Lennoxville Library, Bishop’s University also has a great library). But additionally, and astonishingly, we have two incredibly well-stocked book shops.

BISHOP’S U BOOKSTORE TOP 5
Cindy Rivett is manager of the Bishop’s University Bookstore (located in the Marjorie Donald building on campus). It stocks textbooks (some of which non-students will find fascinating), but also has a large collection of general interest fiction and non-, local history, and more.

Here’s her list of the store’s current top five bestsellers:
1) Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King
2) Orr, by Bobby Orr
3) Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
4) Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
5) Back of the Turtle, by Thomas King.

BLACK CAT TOP SELLERS
Janice LaDuke runs the Black Cat (at 168E Queen), which stocks both new and used books. Here’s the shop’s top sellers of the season.
1) The Old Farmers’ Almanac and Harrowsmith’s Almanac
2) Walking the Eastern Townships, a gorgeous photographic tour of these beautiful Eastern Townships
3) Nick Fonda’s Hanging Fred and a Few Others: Painters of the Eastern Townships
4) The Lost Sisterhood, by Anne Fortier. Another local author!
5) Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
6) And The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny
7) John Green’s books, The Fault in Our Stars, but also Looking for Alaska.

You’ll now find bestseller status displayed in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS on spines. As I wandered through the Lennoxville Library’s fiction stacks, I snapped up Jeffrey Deaver’s Praying For Sleep (1994), advertised as “scary” and penned by a “New York Times Bestselling author”, and two New York Times bestsellers, Steve Martini’s Trader Of Secrets (a “high-stakes, high-octane adventure”) and Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar, a historical thriller that mixes 1291 intrigue with that of modern Manhattan.

Bestsellers? Maybe. In the United States.

And our statistics don’t compare to sales elsewhere, either.

“We can’t reveal sales numbers, but to give you a very rough idea: when a book is in the Top 10, it’s usually sold several thousand copies across Canada in one week,” notes the website BookNet Canada. “Sales numbers of category bestsellers (lists restricted to a specific genre, like cooking or mystery) can be lower, though.”

And what are the rules for claiming bestseller status? I’ve never heard of anyone being arrested for claiming false sales status (but who am I to say). Again, from BookNet: “If you’re not on an official bestseller list, then you haven’t been identified as a bestseller. Most major publications (newspapers and sometimes magazines or websites) that have bestseller lists ensure that their bestseller lists are based on comprehensive national (or regional) sales tracking and cite their sources…”

BROWN BAGS TOP 5
The Lennoxville Library also has its own bestsellers, as it were.

Every second Wednesday, readers drop by with a book and a lunch, and have a relaxed chat about their latest reads. All are welcome to pop by for Books And Brown Bags (the next luncheon gathering is Wednesday, Dec 17).

Here are five books that are in the Lennoxville Library, and that were recommended at the last Brown Bags:

1) The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout is set in a small town in Maine. Somali refugees are living in the community
2) The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson is about a South African girl who ends up in Sweden
3) Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan won the 2014 Man Booker prize. It is by an Australian and deals with Japanese POW camps and is a love story
4 and 5) Two books by Amitav Ghosh that were recommended are Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. These are the first two of his proposed trilogy – historical novels about the opium trade.

And this almost goes without saying: there are all sorts of great books out there that have never come near a bestseller list. Read chart-toppers for fun, but keep an open mind for all the other great reads out there.

– Eleanor Brown, December 5, 2014

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About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au http://www.bibliolennoxvillelibrary.ca/ Click on the above to get to our website!
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