[Cross-posted from Poe's Deadly Daughters.]

“I stopped enjoying her books years ago, but I still buy them and read them.”

“His last half-dozen books have been poorly written and boring – but I can’t seem to stop myself from buying them, even though I know I’m going to hate them.”

How many times have you heard people say this sort of thing? How many times have you seen similar statements posted on DorothyL? How many times have you admitted to buying books by authors you should have given up on years ago?

I’m trying to understand why readers buy, and read, then complain about books they know in advance they won’t like. Do they have such ecstatic memories of an author’s first few good books that they keep hoping she or he will suddenly start writing well again when all the evidence points to a permanent decline? Any author can be forgiven one weak book – no one is consistently brilliant, after all – but I have so little time to read that a writer who disappoints me repeatedly has to do something spectacular to win me back. I feel very much alone in taking this hard line, though.

If you doubt that American readers are creatures of habit, just take a look at last year’s overall bestsellers list, as reported in a recent issue of Publishers Weekly. Among the top six books of the year – those that sold more than a million copies each – is only one by a new author: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, which came in second with 1.3 million copies sold even though it wasn’t published until September of 2008. The other books at the top are (1) The Appeal by John Grisham, (3) The Host by Stephanie Meyer, which is still near the top of the bestseller lists after 48 weeks, (4) Cross Country by James Patterson, (5) The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks, and (6) Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich.

Moving down the list, to books that sold more than 600,000 but fewer than a million copies last year, we find (7) Christmas Sweater, a first novel by conservative media personality Glenn Beck, who was already a known quantity because of his books of opinion on social issues; (8) Scarpetta by Patricia Cornwell; (9) Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz; (10) Plum Lucky by (again) Janet Evanovich; (11) 7th Heaven by (again) James Patterson; (12) Sail by (again!) James Patterson; (13) A Good Woman by Danielle Steele; (14) Divine Justice by David Baldacci; and (15) The Gate House by Nelson DeMille.

One new writer in the entire lot -- and Wroblewski was blessed with Oprah’s imprimatur, which drove sales of Edgar Sawtelle.

A total of 155 novels sold more than 100,000 hardcover copies each last year. Of those, four were by James Patterson, three by Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, four by Iris Johansen, three by Danielle Steele. The following authors all had two bestselling hardcovers each in 2008: Janet Evanovich, Patricia Cornwell, Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark (they co-authored one book), Dean Koontz, David Baldacci, Laurell K. Hamilton, Jonathan Kellerman, Stephen King, John Sandford, Clive Cussler, Debbie Macomber, Stuart Woods, Robert Parker, Jeffery Deaver, and Jack Higgins. Twenty-one authors wrote 47 of the 155 novels that sold more than 100,000 copies.

In paperback, these same authors sold even more copies of more novels, some of them reprints of books originally published years ago. Roberts/Robb had the most paperback bestsellers in 2008 – nine in mass market pb and six in trade pb. James Patterson had a total of nine.

Almost all of the other books on both hardcover and paperback lists were written by long-established authors.

I’m not saying these people produce bad books, or that their fans are automatons who buy blindly even when they don’t anticipate enjoying the novels they purchase. All of the top-selling writers have legions of devoted fans who love every word they write. I realize that the millions of books they sell are helping their publishers stay in business. But the sameness of the names at the top of the bestsellers list, year after year after year, does suggest that many readers lack a sense of adventure and would rather buy a book with a familiar name on it, whether it’s a good book or not, than try something new. Publishers know that, and count on it when they put out multiple books by the same writers each year.

In addition to Wroblewksi, one other newcomer stood out last year: Brunonia Barry, whose The Lace Reader sold more than 160,000 copies. I refuse to believe that only two new writers published novels last year that were good enough to engage the minds and hearts of a broad range of readers. I think a lot of wonderful books fail to sell in large numbers because the publishers don’t promote them and habit-bound readers are reluctant to spend money on books by writers with unfamiliar names. Yet those same readers will automatically buy a familiar writer’s book – even when they expect it to disappoint them.

Will somebody please explain this quirk of human nature to me? I am sincerely baffled.

Do you buy books by writers you no longer enjoy? Why do you do it? What would it take to persuade you to spend your money instead on a new author’s book? Have you discovered any new authors in the last couple of years whose books are now on your automatic-buy list?

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Comment by Sandra Parshall on May 10, 2009 at 10:11am
I think many writers continue their series long past the point where they should end. I get tired of the characters and lose interest, even if the books aren't outright bad, because I can tell that the writers are bored with the characters. The publishers rely on readers to keep buying the books, though, and it's probably difficult for writers to turn their backs on guaranteed sales. Who is being served in such a situation? Not the reader, certainly, nor the writer.
Comment by J. F. Juzwik on May 10, 2009 at 1:42am
I was in the same situation. For years, I have read a series of books by a particular best-selling author primarily because of the main character. He was a terrific high-level detective and the stories were all fresh and exciting. I pre-ordered one in the series (before the latest one) and I read it from cover to cover in no time flat. I was never so disappointed in my life. The story was beyond lame and boring, and my favorite character? You wouldn't think it would be possible for a made-up person, but he got old and boring. The overall story was so ridiculous, only you couldn't really tell until close to the end how ridiculous it really was. Anyway, now he's come out with another in the series. Now, this one might be spectacular as they were in the past, but what if it's lame like the last one? My reading time is valuable to me and I have no intention of taking a chance. It's time to let the character go. I have the feeling though that this author will keep writing this series as long as people keep buying it, and there will be some that will even though they're terrible.

Yes, I would most certainly take a chance on a new author. I do so on a regular basis. Sometimes I am absolutely amazed and look for other work by them. Other times, I am disappointed and refuse to read anything else they've written.

I don't believe it's a good idea to keep buying whatever an author writes just because you like some of their work. I say this because that's what I've done for a lot of years, but I'm finally learning to be more selective. Buy a book that looks to be interesting and worth reading--don't just go by the writer's name.
Comment by Eric Christopherson on May 9, 2009 at 11:14am
I honestly don't see the Catch-22 B.R. Every year new authors are published. I wish it were more but then I have a vested interest.
Comment by I. J. Parker on May 9, 2009 at 8:28am
Never bought a book by someone I thought little of. Cornwell started out strongly with her first three novels. I might have bought another but picked up an atrocious one in the library instead. Never read Cornwell again. Most of the people you mention I never read and won't read either. There are so many poorly written, mindless books out there that I tend to sample an author in the library before buying. Occasionally this backfires. I admire Martin Cruz Smith and bought his latest (STALIN'S GHOST). It was disappointing.
And B.R., my biggest complaint about publishers is that they throw all their promotion money on the bestselling authors, thereby making it even harder for newcomers to be noticed. It takes a miracle these days to be noticed. Good reviews won't do it. Unfortunately, most bestselling novels are written to lowest common denominator (they are fast, easy reads about sensational subjects).
Comment by B.R.Stateham on May 9, 2009 at 6:05am
There is something to be said (again) about the unwillingess of publishers to open up the ranks and allow new voices in. New voices have to prove they can sell books---but if no one knows about them or sees them on the shelves, how do they sell books? Catch-22 if there ever was one!
Comment by Dana King on May 9, 2009 at 5:45am
There was an author I stuck with longer than I should have, mainly because I'd developed an affection for the characters in his series and, as you noted above, kept hoping he'd start fleshing the books out a little more again. When his style continued to become even less engaging, I cut him loose a few years ago, knowing in the middle of the last book I read that it would be the last.

I think people have comfort zones, and author name is the most easily recognizable part of any book. As writers--or serious reader, as those on Crimespace clearly are--we tend to forget most people don't look too closely for reviews, or research new writers. They stay with what's comfortable.

It's a little like golf. A person can flog away for four hours and generally be miserable, but won't quit because what he remembers most is that drive on 11 and the 30-foot putt on 16. Readers remember the books that formed their impressions of the writer at hand, and it takes a lot to disabuse them.

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