What and Who America Reads

By January 15th, 2016

What and Who America Reads; A Revealing Analysis of The New York Times Best Sellers List- Adult Fiction – 1957-2015

Blog No. 62

January 15, 2016

 New York Times Best Sellers Lists

An Analysis of America’s Reading During the Years 1957-2015


Mack W. Borgen

Santa Barbara, California

University of California at Berkeley (Honors, Economics); Harvard Law School; Author, The Relevance of Reason – Business and Politics (Vol. 1) and – Society and Culture (Vol. 2) – As Advertised in The New York Review of Books and Recipient of Four National Book Awards

Copyright Mack W. Borgen. 2016. All Right Reserved.

No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews and articles, without the prior written permission of the author.  

Author’s Note

                 This article is based upon some of my research relating to my upcoming 2-volume set of books, Dead Serious and Light Hearted – The Memorable Words of Modern America (1957-2015) (Working Title).  


                 As evidenced by the cacophony of our American political and social debates, Americans are out of step with one another. Teams have been picked. Walls have been built. Distances are kept. People with different opinions are viewed with suspicion, if not disdain.

                 But in the quieter moments of our national conversation, there is recurring agreement that it would be good if more commonality – or at least more understanding — could be found amongst ourselves. It would be good to talk more and argue less. It would be good if our national community could be strengthened.

                One place to begin may be for us to get to “know” each other better, and in a small and partial way this can be done by examining what books and what authors we read – as a nation.

                This article summarizes my analysis of one of The New York Times Best Sellers Lists over the course of Modern America—nearly all of the last six decades from 1957 to 2015. Such analysis won’t begin to find all of the answers. But it is interesting. It may help. We may come to know our own America just a bit better. We may be able to catch at least a glimpse of who we are. We may pick up a few more pieces to the American puzzle.

                The two primary reasons for my use of The New York Times Best Sellers Lists are (i) its authoritative dominance as one of the preeminent sources of data about the reading choices of the American public, and (ii) the statistical validity of the data which is achievable due to the mere fact that the lists have been regularly published as national lists for nearly 75 years — since 1942.

Background and Explanation of The New York Times Best Sellers Lists.

                The first reason for analyzing The New York Times Best Sellers Lists is because, despite periodic controversies, they are widely considered to be some of the most authoritative national lists of best selling books in America. The precise methodology for their compilation and the staff’s ranking of books has always been and remains a carefully guarded trade secret of the publisher, but it is known that the lists are based upon weekly sales data collected by The New York Times from selected independent and chain bookstores and wholesale booksellers throughout the United States.

                Over the years multiple categories for fiction and non-fiction books have been added, and even these categories have been subdivided and modified. For example, in 1984 the list of “Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous” books was presented for the first time. At the time it was conceded that this was done largely because the sales of these “how-to” books were crowding out the more general – indeed the more traditional – general non-fiction books.

                In the context of lists of fiction books, similar subdivisions and modifications have been made. For example, one of the more controversial changes was made in July, 2000 when a list for “Children’s Best Seller’s” was added. This new list was added in response to overwhelming dominance of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books which had been consistently dominating the top of the Best Sellers List for Fiction. Thus, since 2000 fiction books have been divided between Adult Fiction Best Sellers and Children’s Fiction Best Sellers. Even more recently, in 2010 belated adjustments were made to the Best Sellers Lists in order to make room for and to recognize the substantial sales of ebooks.

Years of Publication and the Resultant Possibility of Statistical Validity

              The second reason for analyzing The New York Times Best Sellers Lists is simply because there are so many of them. In the years of Modern America (1957-2015), 3,052 Best Sellers Lists for Adult Fiction have been published by The New York Times. The “missing” 16 weeks in that 59-year period are attributable to fact that no lists were published during the newspapers strikes of 1962, 1963, 1965, and 1978.

(Author’s Note: For an explanation of my definition of the 1957-2015 boundary years of what is defined as “Modern America, see Chapter 4 of one of my books – The Relevance of Reason – Vol. 1 (Business and Politics) (407 pp.) (2013) or Vol. 2 (Society and Culture (437 pp.) (2013).

               Thus, because of the sheer number of lists, some statistical validity is achievable. An analysis of this data can reveal meaningful information about America’s reading habits – or at least its book purchasing and reading interests, about the prominence of certain books and types of books, authors, and – upon closer examination – even changes in the book publishing industry.

              It is acknowledged that even with an analysis of The New York Times lists, a razor-accurate understanding of what books Americans buy and read is impossible. For example, urban/rural, educational level, and regional reading differences cannot be determined, and some massively successful and important books make it to the list but never achieve a No. 1 status. The best example of this is Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. Although it is one of the seminal books of Modern America. To Kill a Mockingbird spent 98 weeks on Best Sellers List but never ranked No. 1. for any given week.

             The lists can also be misleading for other reasons such “fast sales” (i.e. a phrase reflecting that fact that the lists identify only top book sales in a given week rather than total book sales overall) and “double counting” (i.e. a phrase reflecting the fact that double counting of a book’s sales can result from the potential for overlap counting of both wholesaler and retailer sales).

             Lastly, there is always the risk of rigging. Over the years and despite careful internal controls, there have been periodic attempts by authors, publishers, wholesalers, and retailers to rig the list. These attempts have been done through, for example, bulk buying (by companies, organizations, or institutions) and other forms of data manipulation. Sometimes rigging is attempted through self-buying by the author, by the author’s employees, associates, or supporters, or even by the publisher. In fact, just six months ago, in July, 2015, Ted Cruz’s book, A Time for Truth, was excluded from the Best Sellers List for Non-Fiction because of “the overwhelming preponderance of evidence that the sales” of his book were made through strategic bulk purchases. As expected on both sides, Senator Cruz dismissed the claim and demanded an apology, but The New York Times stood by its conclusion based upon its evidence of author-directed, book-buying manipulation. It is impossible to know for certain about the existence or the depth of the Chinese Wall between The New York Times’ editorial page and its Best Sellers Lists, but if this purchasing manipulation charge is true, the appropriateness of Senator Cruz’ book title, A Time for Truth, is awkwardly called into question.  

             Nevertheless, and despite these caveats and cautions, The New York Times Best Seller Lists remain one of the best ways to track America’s reading habits. The data below focuses only on The New York Times Best Sellers List for Adult Fiction.

               My forthcoming 2-volume set of books (Dead Serious and Light Hearted – The Memorable Words of Modern America (1957-2015) (Working Title) includes data from multiple additional Best Sellers Lists (e.g. Adult Non-Fiction, History), information about Pulitzer Prize Awards, and a list of the seminal books of Modern America. However, the scope of this article is more narrow — an analysis of The New York Times Best Sellers List for Adult Fiction.

               A summary of my analysis of The New York Times Best Sellers List for Adult Fiction (1957-2015) (hereinafter referred to as the “BSL-Fiction”) is set forth below.

 Number of Authors Who Have Been Included as No. 1 on the BSL-Fiction: 205 authors(Including Co-Authors)

                                 Male:                      121 authors / 59.0%

                                Female:                  84 authors / 41.0%

                                 Comment: Although parity has not yet been achieved, these  percentages  far exceed gender parity in many other contexts.  

 Number and Percentage of Authors with Only 1 Year with a No. 1 on BSL-Fiction:

82 authors / 42/0%

                                 Comment: A surprisingly high 42% of authors have reached No. 1 on the BSL-Fiction only once in their careers.

 Number of Books Which Have Been No. 1 on BSL-Fiction:                  647 books

 Average Weeks of a Book Being No. on the BSL-Fiction:                        4.7 weeks

Shortened Attention Span of the American Readers. Due to changes in the book publishing market (e.g. ebooks, print-on-demand publications), the growing volume of written works, and possibly the shortened attention span of U.S. readers, the number of weeks of a book being No. 1 on the BSL-Fiction has decreased greatly over the last decades.

                                Period                      Number of        Average Number of Books as No. 1 on List

                                                               Years in Period                       in Any Given Year


                                1957-1969                               13                            25.2 weeks

                                1970-1979                               10                            25.6 weeks

                                1980-1989                               10                            12.5 weeks            

                                1990-1999                               10                            13.9 weeks

                                2000-2009                              10                            10.8 weeks

                                2010-2015                                  6                            11.6 weeks


 Top Fiction Authors – By Decade (NOTE: This listing is in the sole opinion of this writer. It is based upon the number of books written by the author in the decade which became a No. 1 Best Seller).

                1957-1969      James Michener (2 books – Hawaii, The Source).

                1970-1979       Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull) (Top Book-2 years)

                1980-1989       Robert Ludlum (3 books – The Bourne Identity, The Parsifal Mosaic,

                                                          The Aquitaine Progression); 

                                             John le Carre (2 books – The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House).

                                             Stephen King (2 books – Skeleton Crew, It).

                1990-1999        John Grisham (2 books – The Pelican Brief, The Street Lawyer).

                                             James Redfield (The Celestine Prophesy) (2 Years).

  •                                    John Grisham (4 books – The Brethren, A Painted House, Skipping Christmas, and The Appeal); and

                                             Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code (3 years) and The Lost Symbol).

                2010-2015        E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Gray) (Note 1).

 Note 1: It is to a degree revealing that Fifty Shades of Gray was marketed and sold in the United States with little controversy and was widely- and well-received by the American public (29 weeks as the No. 1 Best Seller-Fiction). This alone reflects changes – for better or worse – in America’s social norms.

For example, compare the relative non-controversy about Fifty Shades of Gray with the huge controversies and social shock-and-awes surrounding earlier books such as Lady Chatterley’s Love, Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill. These books included explicit descriptions of sex and used then-unprintable words. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was literally the subject of a U.S. Senate debate in 1930, and all three books (Lady Chatterley’s Love, Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill) were banned in the United States until the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1959. There is also the example of Portnoy’s Complaint. Written by Philip Roth and published in 1969, Portnoy’s Complaint caused great controversy and was also widely condemned. Although it was allowed to be published in the United States, many public libraries banned the book for its explicit treatment of sexuality and depictions of masturbation.

 Top 10 Fiction Authors of Modern America:

      Rank      Author                                                   Years                  Number of Weeks

  1.            James Michener                                 1960-1988                             200
  2.            Stephen King                                       1979-2015                              147
  3.            John Grisham                                      1992-2015                             134
  4.            James Patterson (Note 1)                2001-2015                               96
  5.            Robert Ludlum                                    1978-1990                               84
  6.            John le Carre                                        1974-1991                                77
  7.            Dan Brown                                             2003-2013                              75
  8.            Tom Clancy                                            1986-2012                               74
  9.            Leon Uris                                                1959-1977                                66
  10.            Sidney Sheldon                                    1978-1992                                58         

 Pure Volume Writing Award – James Patterson (sometimes by himself and sometimes with co-authors). James Patterson has written an amazing 52 books which have appeared as No. 1 on the Best Sellers List – Fiction. Even though most writers think that even a piece of fiction should take longer than a weekend to write and even though most of Mr. Patterson’s works stay as No. 1 for only 1-4 weeks, Mr. Patterson’s collected works remain indisputably an outstanding number of successful books to have been written in a relatively short period of time (2001 through 2015).

Heartbreak Award. Steig Larsson since all three of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy were published after his early death in 2004.

 One-Hit Wonder Awards. The inclusion of an author’s name below is not intended to diminish their achievement. Every songwriter wishes he had written American Pie like Don McLean, and every author would mortgage his dog to get a book on this BSL-Fiction list. As will be seen, the definitional sweep also dubiously includes the names of masters such as Boris Pasternak, Katherine Anne Porter, and Elia Kazan. Nevertheless, the tracking of one-hit wonders is an American pastime. Thus (and, again, solely in the context of The New York Times BSL-Fiction), the ten writers who wrote only one BSL-Fiction No. 1 book and which book stayed as No. 1 for 20 weeks or more are as follows:

Richard Bach (B: 1936) (Jonathan Livingston Seagull – 1972-1973 – 38 weeks).

Robert Traver (Pen name for John D. Voelker) (B: 1903- D: 1991) (Anatomy of a Murder

– 1957 – 29 weeks) (Note 1.).

James Redfield (B: 1950) (The Celestine Prophecy – 1994-1995 – 27 weeks).

Boris Pasternak (B: 1890 – D: 1960) (Dr. Zhivago – 1958-1959 – 26 weeks) (Note 1.).

Katherine Anne Porter (B: 1890 – D: 1980) (Ship of Fools – 1962 – 26 weeks) (Note 1.).

James Gould Cozzens (B: 1903 – D: 1978) (By Love Possessed – 1957-1958 – 24 weeks)

(Note 1.).

Elia Kazan (B: 1909 – D: 2003) (The Arrangement – 1967 – 23 weeks).

Grace Metalious (B: 1924 – D: 1964) (Peyton Place – 1957 – 23 weeks) (Note 1.).

Kathryn Stockett (B: 1969) (The Help – 2010-2012 – 22 weeks).

Mary McCarthy (B: 1912 – D: 1989) (The Group – 1963-1964 – 20 weeks).

Note 1. These writers are definitionally included within the list, but their inclusion is

admittedly inappropriate because they were born in the early 1900s and wrote and

published primarily prior to 1957 — the beginning of Modern America.

Name of Authors With Book as No. 1 on the BSL-Fiction in 15 or More Years:

                               Author                                   Number of Years

                                Stephen King                               29 years

                                John Grisham                               23 years

                                Danielle Steele                             20 years

                                Patricia Cromwell                       17 years

                                Tom Clancy                                   16 years

                                Mary Higgins Clark                    16 years

                                Janet Evanovich                          16 years

                                James Michener                          15 years

                                James Patterson                          15 years

Number of Writers with More Than 25 Weeks as No. 1 on BSL-Fiction:              25 writers

Number of Writers with More Than 1 Book as No. 1 on BSL-Fiction for More Than 25 Weeks:                                     Just 1 – James Michener.

 Book with Most Number of Weeks as No. 1 on BSL– Fiction – By Year:

                 Year       Author                                   Title                                            No. of Weeks As No. 1      

                1957        Grace Metalious                   Peyton Place                                             23

                1958        Robert Travel (Note 1)       Anatomy of a Murder                           29

                1959        Leon Uris                                Exodus                                                         20

                1960        James Michener                   Hawaii                                                        37

                1961        Irving Stone                            The Agony and the Ecstasy                 27

                1962        Katherine Anne Porter      Ship of Fools                                              26

                1963        Morris West                           The Shoes of the Fisherman                 14

                1964        John le Carre                        The Spy Who Came in from the Cold 34

                1965        James Michener                   The Source                                                   22

                1966        Jacqueline Susann              Valley of the Dolls                                     28

                1967        Elia Kazan                               The Arrangement                                       23

                1968        Arthur Hailey                        Airport                                                            30

                1969        Mario Puzo                            The Godfather                                                15

                 1970        Erich Segal                            Love Story                                                        34

                1971        Irving Stone                          The Passions of the Mind                              13

                1972        Richard Bach                        Jonathan Livingston Seagull                     27

                1973        Richard Bach                        Jonathan Livingston Seagull                      11

                                Mary Stewart                         Hollow Hills                                                        11

                1974        Gore Vidal                              Burr                                                                        17

                1975        James Michener                   Centennial                                                           16

                1976        Leon Uris                                Trinity                                                                    22

                1977        Colleen McCullough            The Thorn Birds                                                 15

                1978        Sidney Sheldon                     Bloodline                                                              13

               1979        Robert Ludlum                      The Martarese Circle                                        14

               1980        Robert Ludlum                      The Bourne Identity                                          16

                1981        James Michener                    The Covenant                                                       16

                1982        Robert Ludlum                      The Parsifal Mosaic                                           16

                1983        John Le Carre                        The Little Drummer Girl                                  12

                1984        Robert Ludlum                      The Aquitaine Progression                             13

                1985        Stephen King                          Skeleton Crew                                                      10

                1986        Stephen King                          It                                                                                12

                1987        Danielle Steele                       Fine Things                                                              9

                1988        Tom Clancy                            The Cardinal of the Kremlin                             12

                1989        John le Carre                         The Russia House                                                  9

                 1990       Scott Turow                           The Burden of Proof                                             11

                                 Jean M. Auel                          The Plains of Passage                                         11           

                1991        Alexandra Ripley                  Scarlett                                                                      12

                1992        John Grisham                        The Pelican Brief                                                  12

                1993        Robert James Waller          The Bridges of Madison County                     35

                1994        James Redfield                      The Celestine Prophesy                                      13

                1995        James Redfield                      The Celestine Prophesy                                      14

                1996        Anonymous (Note 2)           Primary Colors                                                        9

                1997        Charles Frazier                      Cold Mountain                                                       14

                1998        John Grisham                        The Street Lawyer                                                  9

                1999        J.K. Rowling                          Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone    10

                 2000      John Grisham                        The Brethren                                                             9

                2001        John Grisham                       A Painted House                                                      4

                                 Mary Higgins Clark             On the Street Where You Live                            4

                                 James Patterson                   Suzanne Diary for Nicholas                               4

                                Clive Cussler                           Valhalla Rising                                                        4

                                John Grisham                        Skipping Christmas                                                4

                2002        Alice Sebold                         The Lovely Bones                                                       6

                2003`       Dan Brown                           The Da Vince Code                                                 20

                2004`       Dan Brown                           The Da Vince Code                                                 28

                2005        Dan Brown                            The Da Vince Code                                                   7

                2006        Mitch Albom                        For One More Day                                                   6

                2007        Khaled Hosseini                  A Thousand Splendid Suns                               13

                2008        John Grisham                       The Appeal                                                               5

                2009        Dan Brown                            The Lost Symbol                                                     7

                2010        Steig Larsson                        The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest         7

                 2011        Kathryn Stockett                  The Help                                                                  15

                2012        E.L. James                              Fifty Shades of Gray                                           28

                2013        Nicholas Sparks                   Safe Haven                                                                7

                2014        Donna Tartt                          The Goldfinch                                                           4

                                Gillian Flynn                          Gone Girl                                                                    4

                2015        Paula Hawkins                      The Girl on the Train                                         16

  Note 1.   Robert Traver is the pen name for John D. Voelker.

  Note 2. “Anonymous” author later confirmed as political commentator and writer, Joe Klein.

 Books with the Most Number of Weeks at No. 1 on BSL – Fiction:

  Rank Number        Author                        Year(s)          Title

            Of Weeks   

  1.       59           Dan Brown                 2003-2006         The Da Vinci Code
  2.       41            Erich Segal                 1970-1971            Love Story
  3.      40            James Michener       1965-1966          The Source
  4.      39            James Michener       1960-1961          Hawaii
  5.      38            Richard Bach             1972-1973          Jonathan Livingston Seagull
  6.      38            Robert James Waller 1993-1995      The Bridges of Madison County
  7.      36            Leon Uris                    1976-1977           Trinity
  8.      34            John le Carre                1964                 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  9.      30            Arthur Hailey               1968                  Airport
  10.      29            Saul Bellow                1964-1965          Herzog
  11.      29            E.L. James (Note 1)  2012, 2014       Fifty Shades of Gray
  12.      29            Robert Traver (Note 2) 1957              Anatomy of a Murder
  13.      28            Allen Drury                1959-1960         Advice and Consent
  14.      28            James Michener       1974-1975         Centennial
  15.      28            Jacqueline Susann      1966                Valley of the Dolls
  16.      27            James Redfield          1994-1995         The Celestine Prophecy
  17.      27            J.D. Salinger               1961-1962         Franny and Zooey
  18.      27            Irving Stone                   1961                 The Agony and the Ecstasy
  19.      26            Boris Pasternak         1958-1959        Dr. Zhivago
  20.     26            Katherine Anne Porter 1962              Ship of Fools

 Note 1:   Pen Name for Erika Mitchell.             

 Note 2: Pen name for John D. Voelker.

Branding. The following authors always or frequently title-brand their books in the manners set forth below:

                   Author                                               Manner of Title-Branding

                Janet Evanovich      Numbers – Hot Six, Seven Up, Hard Eight, To the Nines ….

                Sue Grafton               Letters – “L” Is for Lawless, “N” Is for Noose, “P” Is for Peril, ….

                Charlaine Harris     Use of the word “Dead” – Dead and Gone, Dead in the Family,

                Steig Larsson            The Girl Who …, The Girl with .…”

                James Michener      One-word titles – Hawaii, Centennial, Chesapeake, Space, .…

                James Patterson      Frequent use of Numbers – 1st to Due, 2nd Chance, 3rd Degree .…

                Nora Roberts            “in Death” series – Promises in Death, Fantasy in Death, ….

               John Stanford           “Prey” series – Easy Prey, Chosen Prey, Naked Prey .…       

 Author with the Longest Run on the BSL – Fiction: The author who has the most number of years between their first and last book on the BSL-Fiction is Stephen King with 36 years (1979 – 2015).



                As has been noted above, there are many lists of best sellers. Although The New York Times Best Sellers List for Adult Fiction is one of the most important in discerning the reading choices of Americans, other valuable sources such as the lists for Non-Fiction and the recipients of the Pulitzer Prizes also needed to considered. This is done – albeit as only one small section — in my forthcoming 2-volume set of books entitled Dead Serious and Light Hearted – The Memorable Words of Modern America (1957-2015) (Working Title) (2 Volumes).

               These books (hopefully to be published later this year) are the result of three years of research and writing. These books build upon the regrettable conclusion that currently in our country, history is poorly taught and rarely learned. To change this, they attempt to present the history of Modern America in a wholly new and creative manner through the assemblage and analysis of those words – the good and bad, the serious and the funny, the spoken and written, and from hundreds of sources — which best explain our heritage, best trigger our memories, and most profoundly have influenced our beliefs, opinions, and perspectives.

                 I hope that you may consider reserving a set of my forthcoming books — Dead Serious and Light Hearted – The Memorable Words of Modern America (1957-2015) (Working Title) (2 Volumes).

              If you wish to reserve your set(s) of books with Brody & Schmitt Publishers, please just email me at mwborgen@live.com.

               Please just indicate how many sets of Dead Serious and Light Heart – The Memorable Words of Modern America (1957-2015) (Working Title) you wish and your name and address. The cost for the 2-volume set is $49.99 plus $3.50 shipping or $44.99 per 2-volume set for orders of five or more sets plus shipping. All advance-order books will be signed by the author and shipped immediately upon publication. No payment is due until shipping.

 Thank you.




Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Friday, January 15th, 2016 at 9:17 am and is filed under Latest News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.