• U.S.

Books: Best-Sellers

5 minute read

If best-seller lists were what they pretend to be, they would show no change from one year to another. No matter what high-powered romances become popular for two months or two years, the Bible, the standard dictionaries and Fannie Farmer’s Boston cookbook are perennially the best-selling books in the U. S. Below these three pieces of sacred and profane literature there are the new books that for convenience are called bestsellers. Each week the position of these ephemeral favorites are carefully checked. According to mysterious fluctuations in the public taste, books rise and fall in popularity: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People drops below Van Loon’s The Arts one week, rises above it the next, then falls below Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living.

But carefully plotted as they are, best-seller lists do not give an accurate indication of the comparative popularity even of current books. Statisticians have little difficulty in finding out how many U. S. automobiles were sold in a given week or how big a circulation a newspaper had on a certain day. They can learn readily how many U. S. citizens attended what movies in any particular week. But nobody can get the McCoy on book sales. The best-seller lists are no more reliable than the Literary Digest’s notorious Presidential poll.

Until about 1932 best-seller lists were usually compiled from wholesalers’ reports, the statements of leading booksellers and the hunches of the lists’ compilers. Because booksellers buy books in advance, and because the fact that a book is a best-seller is its best advertisement, most such lists tended to be catalogues of books for which large sales were hoped, rather than lists of those which actually sold most widely. Result was that “the six bestsellers” of one list were not infrequently missing from another.

Thereafter three improved lists were worked up by the New York Times, the Herald Tribune and Publishers’ Weekly. Checking the leading booksellers in each of ten cities every week, the Times merely lists favorites of the moment in each part of the country. The Herald Tribune prints a weekly chart, compiled from reports of some 70 bookstores. Appearance and position of a book on this chart is determined by the number of bookstores reporting it as a leading seller; if three bookstores list a title, it appears on the Herald Tribune list. Thus, last fortnight, A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel was listed by 65 bookstores, had first place on the list, while Mari Sandoz’ novel of pioneer Nebraska, Slogum House, shared last place with three others. The Publishers’ Weekly list is based on monthly questionnaires to 200 bookstores, is tabulated by regions and cities.

These three lists usually agree on the leading titles but often disagree on a book’s relative popularity. In January, Publishers’ Weekly found Madame Curie the best-selling non-fiction book, with 72 of 104 booksellers giving it first place. The Herald Tribune gave it second place, led by The Importance of Living, which was put fourth by Publishers’ Weekly.

No Sales. Second ambiguity in the lists is that they give no figures on sales. When The Citadel was a leading seller in the small, busy Matthews Book Store in Omaha, Neb. and in the medium-sized, modern Greenwood Book Shop in the Delaware Trust Bldg. in the heart of Wilmington, it was not doing so well at Kroch’s in Chicago, one of the six biggest bookstores in the U. S., which sells ten times more books each year than do the other stores. But all three stores had equal standing in the Herald Tribune list. Before Red Star Over China had become a favorite in small shops throughout the U. S., it was among the leaders at R. H. Macy’s in Manhattan (which alone sells 5% of the nation’s books), at the Old Corner in Boston (which sells 1%) and at Kroch’s. While the best-seller lists give a picture of the relative popularity of new books in different parts of the country, they give no indication of any book’s total U. S. sales. Consequently, somebest-sellers stand too high or too low on the list, some are not listed at all.

And Others. Third ambiguity of best-seller lists is that they ignore children’s books and the reprints sold in drugstores, cigar stores, newsstands. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, currently selling 5,000 copies a day, alone rings up more sales than any ten “best-sellers,” and Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand, at 2,000 each week, ranks with Cronin’s The Citadel and Sinclair Lewis’ The Prodigal Parents.

As the spring book season got under way, Commander Ellsberg’s Hell on Ice climbed into the best-seller class at Macy’s, looked like a sure bet for nationwide lists next month, along with Hervey Allen’s Action at Aqnila. Last month’s published best-seller lists boiled down to these headliners:


THE CITADEL—A. J. Cronin—Little, Brown ($2.50).

THE PRODIGAL PARENTS — Sinclair Lewis—Doubleday, Doran ($2.50).

NORTHWEST PASSAGE—Kenneth Roberts —Doubleday, Doran ($2.75).


HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE—Dale Carnegie—Simon &Schuster ($1-96)

MADAME CURIE—Eve Curie—Double-day, Doran ($3.50).

THE IMPORTANCE OF LIVING — Lin —Reynal & Hitchcock ($3).

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