[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?