In 2017, publishing really needs a blockbuster – Los Angeles Times
This year, publishing needs a hit.
Not that 2016 was bad;Â it was fine. Books sales basically held steady â€” down a little here, up some there â€” for the most recent period for which we have numbers, from JanuaryÂ to July. Although the Assn. of American Publishers wants to crow about the fact that books for children and teens were up quite a bit,Â overall, trade books sales were down 0.4% in 2016 from the same period in 2015.
Which isnâ€™t terrible. But it isnâ€™t good, or at least, not good enough.
What publishing needs is one book, one big book, that comes out of nowhere and takes America by storm. You know what I mean: You hear people talking about it in line at the grocery store. Your grandmother asks if youâ€™ve read it and the same day your college roommate does. Itâ€™s the book you see people reading on subways and on planes, that you hear about on the radio and on TV talk shows, that seems to be everywhere at once.
In 2015, that book was â€œThe Girl on the Train.â€ In 2012, it was â€œGone Girl.â€ Before that came â€œThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,â€ â€œThe Girl Who Played With Fireâ€ and â€œThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornetâ€™s Nestâ€ (2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively).
Girls, girls, girls!
Indeed, itâ€™s a trend. Once one of these books becomes a mega-hit, publishers look for ways to hitch their wagons to the lead horse. Gillian Flynn certainly wasnâ€™t copying Stieg Larssonâ€™s trilogy with her book â€œGone Girlâ€ â€” the title was the name of a Johnny Cash album way back in 1978 â€” but publishers surely noticed. And â€œThe Girl on the Trainâ€ which, like â€œGone Girl,â€ features an unreliable female narrator, got a huge marketing push. â€œI know it should be â€˜The Woman on the Train,â€™ but it didn’t scan,â€ author Paula Hawkins (annoyed at the comparison) told the Hollywood Reporter.
The piling on once a book gets mega-successful may be dismaying from a creative standpoint, but from a business perspective it makes sense: The big hits are impossible to predict.
If I had told you in 1996 that a boy wizard, a girl torn between a vampire and a werewolf, kids fighting to the death in a dystopia, teens with cancer and a Harvard symbologist would take our bestseller lists by storm, would you have believed me â€” or called a psychiatrist?
Dan Brown had published three quiet thrillers â€” including one featuring Robert Langdon â€” before his second Langdon book, â€œThe Da Vinci Code,â€ was published. It wasÂ the bestselling book of 2004 â€” and, in 2003 and 2005, the #2 bestseller. It spawned not only its own sequels and movies but shelves and shelves ofÂ imitators filled with art and religious conspiracies.
The book that denied Brown the top spot in 2003 was J.K. Rowlingâ€™s â€œHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.â€ Her massively successful Harry Potter series showed publishing that books for kids could lead the industry, re-energizing it with huge sales. ButÂ Rowling stopped writing the Harry Potter seriesÂ in 2007 withÂ â€œHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,â€ the yearâ€™s bestselling book.
By then, her fans were growing into teens with book-buying power. Some turnedÂ to Stephenie Meyerâ€™s vampire romance â€œTwilightâ€ series; someÂ snapped up â€œThe Hunger Gamesâ€ books by Suzanne Collins; many went forÂ John Greenâ€™s â€œThe Fault In Our Stars.â€
These books arenâ€™t much like one another. And although â€œFifty Shades of Greyâ€ was, at its very first imaginings, â€œTwilightâ€ fan fiction, E.L. Jamesâ€™ erotic novel, which was 2012â€™s bestselling book overall, became something entirely new that launched its own fleet of hot-and-heavy followers.
What these breakthrough books share is that they came out of nowhere to top bestseller lists. They each established a real and meaningful presence in our culture. They told us something, reflected back something or encouraged us to imagine something that was fresh and new.
All the while there were perennial bestselling authors making appearances: Stephen King, John Grisham, Nora Roberts and James Patterson are regularly among the yearâ€™s bestsellers. Jeff Kinney has made a place for himself with his â€œWimpy Kidâ€ childrenâ€™sÂ series. Occasionally, literary authors such as Jonathan Franzen and Anthony Doerr find a place among the yearâ€™s biggest books.
But in 2016, there wasnâ€™t a breakthrough hit of any kind.
Itâ€™s not for want of trying â€” there are thousands of books published each year, with the authors and businesspeople behind them hoping each will resonate with readers, marketers strategizing the best they can. But one of the charms of the publishing industry is that itâ€™s hard to tell what will catch on â€” in fact, the biggest books, the ones that really make a mark, are those that come as aÂ surprise.
What look to be this yearâ€™s top 10 are a lot of usual suspects. The top-selling book of the year, with 4.3 million copies sold as of late December, is by a familiar bestselling writer. But itâ€™s a strange sort of book: â€œHarry Potter and the Cursed Child â€” Parts One and Twoâ€ by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne is the official script book (hardly a book at all, really) of the original London production of the play about a grown-up Harry Potter. Â
As far as sales go, itâ€™s ahead by miles: Its closest competitors, as of the third week of December, are â€œKilling the Rising Sunâ€ by Bill Oâ€™Reilly and Martin Dugard, which has sold about 960,000 copies, and Jeff Kinneyâ€™s latest Wimpy Kid book, â€œDouble Down,â€ with 974,000 copies.
Meanwhile, the book version of Rowlingâ€™s screenplay for â€œFantastic Beasts and Where to Find Themâ€ has sold another 500,000 copies, putting it in or near the yearâ€™s top 10. Both of these Harry Potter-related books are categorized as childrenâ€™s fiction by Nielsen and Publishers Weekly â€” which is a reason why headlines about a dramatic uptick in childrenâ€™s book salesÂ should be taken with a grain of salt. Itâ€™s mostly Rowling.
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