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Books and Best-Sellers

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

A generation ago American book publishers who were about to close their ledgers for 1911 found that they had gained a large part of that profitable year’s income from relatively few titles. Florence Barclay’s “The Rosary,” which had been issued in 1910, was still selling; Robert W. Chambers’s “The Common Law” had caused a sensation; Henry Sydnor Harrison’s “Queed,” a sociological tract of a very mild sort, had achieved best-sellerdom; and Harold Bell Wright’s perennial novel, which happened to be entitled “The Winning of Barbara Worth” that year, had delighted his usual army of followers. Gene Stratton-Porter had come through with “The Harvester,” which was a disappointment after “Freckles” and “A Girl of the Lim-berlost,” but her publishers had no reason to complain. They had made a great deal of money from her books, and they confidently expected to make a great deal more.

It was a golden age for book publishers. They were not only able to print first editions of their popular authors’ work in single runs of several hundred thousand, but they were also in the happy position of seeing the other books on their lists sell reasonably well without much promotion. Production costs were low; only a small investment was required to turn a manuscript into print in order to see how it would go; and advertising was still considered vulgar. Publishers had little competition from other fields—motion pictures were hardly out of the nickelodeon stage; radio, or wireless as it was then universally called, was simply an ingenious method of communication for ships at sea; and the automobile was a luxury which few people could afford. Magazines were beginning to do well, but they were hardly more than a petty annoyance. The theater flourished, but it was necessarily limited to large cities. In the suburbs and in the hinterland one read Harold Bell Wright because there was simply nothing else to do.

The passing of half a generation changed all that. By 1926 popular taste had veered away from sentimental fiction in book form; a new America, toughened and hardened by its experiences in the war, was theoretically demanding realism but in practice was not buying realistic novels in great quantities, although Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” had indicated the new trend. In the five short years of its existence, radio broadcasting had become a serious competitor; the movies were almost ready for sound; and automobiles swarmed across the face of the land. No one had time for light novels, as other media supplied better entertainment at less cost. Prosperity had brought a demand for concentrated doses of culture, and Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” was telling housewives about the joys of speculative thought. Publishers were convinced that fiction was dead. Left Bank experimenters were dissecting its corpse, and their disciples were damning Dickens and Thackeray and predicting that the narrative appeal was gone forever from literature. No one was interested in stories—except the unlettered millions who listened faithfully to the radio, flocked in hordes to the movies, and made The Saturday Evening Post look like the Manhattan Telephone Directory as it swelled with advertising at $8,000 a page.

Another five years, and the country was in the midst of depression. The unemployed haunted the public libraries, demanding serious books which those short-budgeted institutions could not supply. Publishers were convinced that nothing would sell because no one had any money. Then in 1988 a new firm brought out a twelve-hundred-page story entitled “Anthony Adverse.” We are still living under its shadow.

It was followed by “Gone With the Wind,” “Northwest Passage,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Oliver Wiswell,” and “The Keys of the Kingdom,” all of which sold in quantities reminiscent of the halcyon days of Harold Bell Wright. But these books differed greatly from the American popular fiction of a previous generation. They were of widely varying literary merit, yet even the poorest of them was vastly superior to “The Winning of Barbara Worth.” However, they had one thing in common with that work. They were all good stories, strong in plot and filled with exciting incident. They proved that the public would buy large quantities of books for simple enjoyment.

In 1987 people who still had the bitter taste of depression in their mouths were eager to better themselves in business. A book which advised them to win the boss’s favor by behaving like lackeys became the greatest best-seller ever seen in the inspirational field. But Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was the last of these “books which are no books.” Perhaps there was nothing left for anyone to say after Mr. Carnegie’s ultimate pronunciamento on the art of groveling. The violently expanding world forces of war and Fascism were giving little reason for thoughtful people to want to learn how to curry favor. Appeasement collapsed in 1988 at Munich, and Americans studied their newspapers to find out where they stood, They also began to buy books written by newspaper men. The age of the foreign correspondent began, culminating in the present success of William L. Shirer’s “Berlin Diary.”

With newspapers and news broadcasts bidding for the public’s attention it is difficult to understand why people have again turned to books, for the explanation that they are looking for escape is too facile and not entirely true. There was no escape element in “The Grapes of Wrath” or “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “Oliver Wiswell” owed its success to its controversial portrayal of a stormy era rather than to any nostalgic summoning up of the past.

Perhaps people have become bored with the endless repetition and juvenility of radio programs; certainly motion pictures have long ago lost their novelty value, and although first-rate pictures still continue to draw large audiences, at least one producing company has found it desirable to eliminate B-grade pictures from its program entirely. The enforced leisure of a period of depression has taught many people how to read, and world disaster has turned them towards books for an explanation of problems that directly affect their own lives.

But more important than anything else in explaining the great increase in the potential market for books is the fact that publishers have learned to sell books rather than simply to expose them for sale. A great best-seller is no longer a matter of accident. Some years ago it was possible for an obscurely issued book to make its own way against all odds and become a tremendous best-seller despite the obstacles placed in its way by its own publisher. The last clear-cut instance of such a self-made best-seller was “The Story of San Michele,” which appeared in 1929 in an edition of five hundred imported sheets. For nearly a year it languished in the book stores, then it gradually began to move until it had sold 200,000 copies. Another example was Lloyd Douglas’s “Magnificent Obsession,” issued in the same year by a Middle Western printer, but which also managed to become a great best-seller without any outside help.

Such things no longer happen. When Alice Duer Miller’s “The White Cliffs of England” was modestly published in 1940, it was picked up by Lynn Fontanne and broadcast by her over the radio. It began to sell; its publishers then began to promote it with the vigor now required to push any book into the best-seller class. Its theme seized upon the public’s sympathy for the British cause, and timeliness is an important factor in any book’s success. Were one, for instance, to switch the publication dates of Margaret Halsey’s anti-British “With Malice Toward Some” (1988) and Jan Struther’s pro-British “Mrs. Miniver” (1940), it is almost certain that they would not have sold as well as they did.

A generation ago books became best-sellers by some mysterious process of word-of-mouth publicity. This factor still cannot be ignored, for people must like a book well enough to recommend it to their friends if it is to sell, but no up-and-coming publisher will depend solely upon such an inefficient method of spreading the good word. He sends out hundreds of free copies to men and women in influential positions whose comments cause a book to be discussed in the best circles. He wrangles praise from prominent people and prints their “quotes” in bold type in his advertising. Nearly all the great best-sellers of the past decade have been groomed for the market as carefully as a prize race horse is trained to outstrip all its competitors on the track.

A number of things have served to bring this about. One that even the layman cannot be unaware of is the best-seller list which appears in many newspapers and magazines. By concentrating attention on the few titles which are most popular throughout the country a great demand is created for these books while others are ignored.

Bookselling itself has changed. It has taken a lesson from the department store which long ago learned that it did not pay to stock thousands of titles when it was more profitable to promote a few vigorously and take orders for the others only if the customer insisted on having them. This stripped-stock method of merchandising obviously favors the bestseller. The book clerk naturally tries to persuade the customer to take a title from stock; books that are not displayed are not likely to be purchased; and if the customer asks for “a good book” the clerk will, of course, attempt to sell him one which he knows has already met with approval. (It should not be forgotten that the store makes more profit from buying a large quantity of one title at a long discount.) Stripped-stock selling has become so firmly established that the sales manager of one large publishing house candidly admits that it is easier to sell a store a hundred copies of a book the publisher is going to promote heavily than it is to persuade it to take even two copies of a good substantial book for which no ballyhoo is promised.

The book clubs, too, have strongly solidified the position of the best-seller. The Book-of-the-Month Club, which now boasts of more than 450,000 subscribers, sends out huge quantities of its selections to people all over the United States, thus starting an. enormous word-of-mouth campaign in action; impressive reviewing space is guaranteed for its choices; and still more important, the large sum of money paid to the publisher as royalty immediately enables him to devote at least a part of it to an intensive advertising campaign. Not every book chosen by The Book-of-the-Month Club automatically becomes a best-seller, but if it contains the stuff the public wants this is one of the best ways to launch it on a meteoric career.

The publisher who is grooming a best-seller for market is assured of an additional source of revenue from the reprint houses which offer large advance guarantees for the privilege of issuing a cheaper edition after the original edition has run its course. In normal times English and Continental publishers bid for foreign rights. The embryonic best-seller quickly attracts money to itself like a snowball rolling down hill. Months before it is ready for release, the whole trade eagerly awaits its coming. Reviewers stand ready to give it large-space notices; book-club readers route it through for special attention; radio stations, always on the lookout for good material for dramatization, express interest; magazine editors want to see it for possible serialization; and no motion picture story department head considers himself worthy of his job if he has not sent a synopsis to the West Coast long before the author has finished his final revisions. This season, for instance, Edna Ferber’s “Saratoga Trunk” and Daphne du Maurier’s “Frenchman’s Creek” each earned more than two hundred thousand dollars before the linotype machines began setting the high-priced words.

The demand for best-sellers far exceeds the supply, so publishers desperately try to create artificial best-sellers by having them made to order. Anthologies, which utilize literary material of proved worth, are issued and promoted; ideas for books conceived” in the publisher’s office are assigned to well known authors in very much the same way the manufacturer of washing machines asks a leading designer to create a new model that will outsell anything on the market. Authors who naively think they should write about subjects that interest them are enticed into greener pastures where banknotes grow like grass.

Enormous rewards—rewards even greater than those paid to best-selling authors a generation ago—await the writer who can produce for a mass market. Even the author of a first book is welcomed if his manuscript shows promise of being a potential “Gone With the Wind.” But the purely literary writer, the experimental writer, the psychological novelist, and even the established author of many good but not popular enough books are having difficulty finding first-rate publishers to print their work.

This tendency has been going on for some time, but a new and decisive factor is going to make matters worse. Wartime economy, with its looming shortages of paper, cloth, and ink will make small editions more unprofitable than ever. A publisher with a best-seller on his hands is going to hesitate a long while before robbing the presses of a few reams of paper for a book which has no sales appeal. Word has arrived from England, where material shortage is in an advanced stage, that only the work of well known authors is now being published there. The tendency to concentrate all attention on the best-seller is increasing everywhere, and, war or no war, there is no reason to believe that there will be a reversal of this trend. Best-sellers have always been with us; mass-production methods make it certain that they always will be with us.

The book business is undergoing (although in a much slighter way) the same evolutionary process the automobile industry went through. It is not likely to follow it to the same ruthlessly logical conclusion in which three major producers with a dozen master models dominate a world market, for the book business, unlike the automobile industry, requires only a small capital investment. New entrepreneurs can always open shop, and if they are clever enough and lucky enough, they may see their ventures grow into good-sized publishing houses. It is much more difficult, however, to start a new publishing firm now than it was ten or twenty years ago. Authors are not easily to be found—especially best-selling ones—and a new house must go through a lean period before it can become successful enough to attract big-name writers.

But even though it is unlikely that publishing will become a monopolistic industry, it should not be forgotten that the very nature of publishing is monopolistic. Legal contracts and copyright laws give the publisher the exclusive privilege of issuing an author’s book. The public must buy from him, and when he has a title thousands,of people want, he profits handsomely from being the only source of supply.

This also enhances the position of the author who can turn out popular books. It makes him sought after by publishers who are eager to have on their list a creator of property that is jealously guarded by law against any kind of encroachment. The writer who has learned to use the golden touch system on his typewriter becomes a one-man factory for a product which can be sold the length and breadth of the land. Everything works for his benefit—widespread literacy which increases the market for his books; the standardization of taste which causes California to read what Maine is simultaneously enjoying; the desire for culture and the social urge for self-betterment which make people want to be au courant with current literature. The only weakness in his seemingly impregnable position is that the public is fickle—it likes to see new faces on the screen and new names on its books. But despite the rise and fall of individual authors, the best-seller principle continues, and it becomes more strongly entrenched each year as publishers learn new promotion methods and authors find out how to deliver what the public wants.

The best-seller has been condemned for a dozen different reasons. It works irreparable harm by causing publishers to neglect other books on their list when they have a bestseller on their hands. It vulgarizes literature by influencing writers to produce what they hope will sell rather than what they truly would like to say. It brings about stagnation by discouraging experiment, and it reduces literature to the level of the bedtime story by its insistence on oversimplification. A very good case can be made out against the bestseller, just as a very good case can be made out against the radio, the motion picture, and the mass-circulation magazine, But they are all part of our highly industrialized society, and it is futile to inveigh against any one of them. They represent new means of communication through which one man can address millions. What really matters is what the person using them has to say. So far the artist has been seriously restricted in radio and pictures.. He is relatively free when he writes a book. If he tries to write a best-seller he does so because he wants to make money—not because his publisher commands him “to turn out a super-colossal novel which carries a pair of star-crossed lovers from Nineveh to the removal of the British army from Dunkirk with stock episodes thrown in from another manuscript that was too long to be printed in one Volume.”

Much of the vehement denunciation of the best-seller comes from people who snobbishly avoid any contemporary book that becomes popular. Some of it comes from writers who can’t understand why their own work doesn’t sell better. Actually the literary value of a book has slight correlation with its sales. The glorious prose of Sir Thomas Browne has never appealed to a wide audience, but the still more glorious verse of William Shakespeare is read by millions of people throughout the world. A first-rate work of historical fiction like “War and Peace” is often mentioned but seldom purchased, while hundreds of thousands of readers fight to obtain copies of the latest two-inch-thick historical novel.

Damning the best-seller is very much like cursing at our machine civilization. It is part and parcel of the world in which we live, as normal to our mode of existence as the automobile, as sure to continue with us as the machines themselves. It traces its ancestry back to Gutenberg; it received a terrific impetus from the invention of the steam rotary press, and every mechanical and social change since then has served to establish it more firmly. It is here to stay, no matter what form our economic system takes.

In a world which faces vast revolutionary upheavals the problem of best-sellerism may seem trivial. Actually it is not, for as has been shown, the best-seller is closely allied with the forces that are shaping our age. And if one believes that literature is important, the influence of the best-seller on publishing merits careful examination and analysis. It is not absurd to suppose that historians of the future will write elaborate treatises showing how the literature of the first half of the twentieth century was molded by mass audiences who got their reading matter in the form of best-sellers. We know the effect a small, highly educated circle of readers had upon the literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We have seen how Dickens was able to dominate the nineteenth century novel by means of the steam press and serially issued installments. Surely it is not unreasonable to believe that millions of readers devouring millions of machine-made books will leave their impress upon the literature of our time.

The effect this mass audience may have upon literature is not easily forecast, yet one can already perceive certain tendencies. Everything is subordinated to the story; characters simply further the action without having any inner significance of their own; the deep underlying motives which govern human behavior are slighted because they hold up a rapidly moving narrative; atmosphere and background become nuisances which impede the progress of the plot, and philosophical speculation is ruled out entirely. Our novels are becoming as rigidly streamlined as our airplanes or automobiles; our non-fiction is written in a high-grade journalese which stems from the penny pamphleteers rather than from the great masters of English prose style.

And our readers who confine themselves to best-sellers are like motorists whose chief aim in life is to cover six hundred miles a day. You see very little while driving at seventy miles an hour—you gather very little from the galloping pages of a breathless narrative. Both are fun while they last, but what can be remembered of them except bright streaks of color, the feeling of rapid movement, and a temporary sense of excitement? The hurrying traveler is isolated by his speed; to his narrowly concentrated vision the world becomes a twenty-foot strip of road. Another six hundred miles—or pages—and he is just where he began. In his mad haste he has seen nothing, experienced nothing. Far back from the highway down which he raced there were a hundred towns and villages whose existence he did not even suspect. In them life goes on, lived in all its fullness, but what can be grasped of life or literature by a man who takes only the main-traveled roads and who never attempts to explore for himself anything that lies beyond the horizon’s rim?


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