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Best Sellers in Perspective: 1918 vs. 2018

As writers worldwide ring in the New Year, many are working toward 2018 as their year to appear on a coveted Best Seller list. Predictably, by the dog days of August, conference conversations will circle around how much more difficult it is today to achieve this benchmark than it was for writers in the early days of publishing. 

Perhaps 2018 is a good time to replace the "things were better when _________" conversation.  I believe it is more valuable and exciting when we look for ways to relate to writers from the past, especially the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Their lives were enmeshed in economic, social, political and technological disruptions. As you review the 1918 fiction and nonfiction lists, notice how writers grapple with living through the First World War

A New Year's Day Ritual

Every year, I crack open Michael Korda's wonderful book, Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900 to 1999, and review the best seller lists he compiled from Publishers Weekly. I also look up the biography of each author in order to understand how he or she approached writing as a career. It is also interesting to review the rights sales and if the works are still selling today.  

It is astonishing to consider that authors, such as British novelist E. Phillips Oppenheim, wrote more than 100 novels between 1887 and 1943, plus 37 short story collections. In fact, is Pawns Court, which was #8 on the 1918 Best Seller list, that much different from Lee Child's Midnight Line, which is #6, on today's New York Times Best Seller List? Both are thrillers with a good bit of spying and government intrigue. 

Publisher rejection is timeless and just one of the common connections between Zane Grey and Nora Roberts. Both in the #1 slot with plots revolving around the quest for a better life in the west. Zane Grey's submissions met with four immediate rejections by Harper's fiction editor, including Riders of the Purple Sage. Grey would not take "no" for an answer and demanded a meeting with Harper's vice president. After that meeting, Harper became Grey's publisher.

Nora Roberts was rejected by Harlequin numerous times. But a new imprint, Silhouette, bought her first novel. She went on to write 22 more for them. Her hits keep on coming.

As for Zane Grey, his works are still in print and in movies.  

On the Nonfiction Best Seller list, I think Recollections by Viscount Morley in 1918 is as timeless as Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Morley writes: "The world is traveling under formidable omens into a new era, very unlike the times my lot was cast."

Indeed, the more things change the more they remain the same. 

Readers Long for a Story Well Told 

A self-trained writer, Gene Stratton Porter took up writing in 1895 as an outlet for self expression. She wrote 26 books, including 12 novels, eight nonfiction books on nature studies, two books of poetry, and four collections of stories. Spanning 10 years from 1910 to 1920, Porter had an estimated audience of 50 million readers.  No computer. No social media. Yet, her audience size rivals her contemporaries on the 2018 list. 


No Overnight Successes

As I find every year, the biggest takeaway is that every author who makes a Best Seller List earned their place through the discipline of writing faithfully and working with conviction that they would sell their work and earn a sustainable living from it. In most cases, the best seller was the fifth or sixth book by the author, not the first. 


A Note about the Comparison between 1918 and 2018

The 1918 list is from Korda's book that I mentioned previously. For the 2018 list, I used the combined print and ebook list from The New York Times Book Review, December 24, 2017. 


Fiction Best Sellers

1918

2018

1. The U.P. Trail, by Zane Grey. Harper. In this Western about building the Pacific Railroad through the Rocky Mountains, a love story evolves between the railroad engineer and a young woman he finds beaten and left for dead on a trail.

1. Year One, by Nora Roberts. St. Martin's. When a pandemic strikes and the world spins into chaos, several travelers head west to find a new life. 

2. The Tree of Heaven, by May Sinclair. Macmillan. The story of a blossoming middle-class family in the time of peace, leading up to WWI. 

2. Origin, by Dan Brown. Doubleday. A symbology professor goes on a perilous quest with a beautiful museum director. 

3. The Amazing Interlude, by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Doran. Driven by a sense of duty and fear of monotony, Sara Lee leaves her comfortable life and fiancée in Philadelphia to serve the Red Cross in Belgium during WWI. 

3. The Rooster Bar, by John Grisham. Doubleday. Three students at a sleazy for-profit law school hope to expose the student loan banker who runs it. 

4. Dere Mable, by Edward Streeter. Stokes. Inspired by Streeter's time on an army base camp, the book is a collection of Streeter's humorous columns about an illiterate soldier writing home. 

4. Darker, by E.L. James. Vintage. Christian Grey's tormented and difficult pursuit of Anastasia Steele is told from his perspective. 

5. Oh, Money! Money!, by Eleanor H. Porter. Houghton Mifflin. From the author of the best-selling novel Pollyanna comes a new novel about the adventures of a middle-aged couple who come to learn that money cannot buy happiness. 

5. The Midnight Line, by Lee Child. Delacorte. Jack Reacher tracks down the owner of a pawned West Point class right and stumbles upon a larger criminal enterprise. 

6. Greatheart, by Ethel M. Dell. Putnam. A picture of holiday romance with all of its elevating hopes, fancies and diversions--and its distressing realities. 

6. The People vs. Alex Cross, by James Patterson. Little, Brown. Detective Cross takes on a case even though he has been suspended from the department and taken to federal court to stand trial on murder charges. 

7. The Major, by Ralph Connor. Revell. Frontier adventure with strong themes of morality and justice. 

7. End Game, by David Baldacci. Grand Central. Jessica Reel and Will Robie fight a dangerous adversary in Colorado. 

8. The Pawns Count, by E. Phillips Oppenheim. Little, Brown. A female spy in the tense days when Germany and England were fighting trench-to-trench in France. 

8. The Sun and Her Flowers, by Rupi Kaur. Andrews McMeel. A new collection of poetry from the author of "Milk and Honey."

9. A Daughter of the Land, by Gene Stratton Porter. Doubleday, Page. Kate Bates lives in a man's world. It is her dream to run and own her own farm. To fulfill her dreams she must give up everything to start anew. 

9. Artemis, by Andy Weir. Crown. A small-time smuggler living in a lunar colony schemes to pay off an old debt by pulling off a challenging heist. 

10. Sonia: Between Two Worlds, by Stephen M. McKenna. Doran. A coming of age romance novel set in the turbulence of WWI. 

10. The Demon Crown, by James Rollins. Morrow. Commander Grayson Pierce must decide if he will join forces with an enemy to take out an ancient deadly threat. 



Nonfiction Best Sellers

1918

2018

1. Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, by Robert W. Service. Barse & Hopkins. This volume is the outcome of the author's experiences while working under the Red Cross in France.

1. Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. Simon & Schuster. A biography of the Italian Renaissance polymath which connects his work in various disciplines. 

2. Treasury of War Poetry, by G. H. Clarke. Houghton Mifflin. The 106 authors of these 151 poems represent the many countries engulfed in the first "Great War" to the individual combatants to those who ministered to the soldiers and waited for them to come home. 

2. Grant, by Ron Chernow. Penguin Press. A biography of the Union general of the Civil War and two-term president of the United States. 

3. With the Colors, by Everard J. Appleton. Stewart, Kidd. Songs (lyrics) of the American Service. 

3. Let Trump Be Trump, by Corey R. Lewandowski and David N. Bossie. Center Street. Insider accounts of the Republican presidential campaign and its outcome by two of its advisers. 

4. Recollections, by Viscount Morley. Macmillan. "The world is traveling under formidable omens into a new era, very unlike the times my lot was cast." 

4. Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. Sentinel. Major General Jackson takes on the British in Louisiana. 

5. Laugh and Live, by Douglas Fairbanks. Britton Publishing Co. Fairbanks's formula for happiness--humility, good humor, and particularly strenuous physical exercise--is evident in this "life's a banana peel" self-help book. 

5. Obama, by Pete Souza. Little, Brown. More than 300 pictures of the former president by his White House photographer, with behind-the-scenes stories. 

6. Mark Twain's Letters, ed. by Albert Bigelow Paine. Harper. An annotated collection of 300+ letters written by Twain. 

6. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Norton. A straightforward, easy-to-understand introduction to the laws that govern the universe. 

7. Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis, by Richard Harding Davis. Scribner. Davis, a Philadelphia-born journalist, led a mythic life, one of adventure, high drama, and a close call with the Germans during WWI. They believed he was a spy. 

7. Killing England, by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard. Holt. Major events and battles during the Revolutionary War are told from several perspectives. 

8. Over Here, by Edgar Guest. Reilly and Lee. A sobering collection of poems drawn from WWI experiences. 

8. Bobby Kennedy, by Chris Matthews. Simon & Schuster. The New York senator's from his formative years to his tragic run for president. 

9. Diplomatic Days, by Edith O'Shaughnessy. Harper. Author was the wife of the secretary of the American Embassy in Mexico City. She describes her introduction to Mexico and the beginnings of the Mexican Revolution. 

9. Promise Me, Dad, by Joe Biden. Flatiron Books. The former vice president recalls his toughest year in office, as his son battled brain cancer. 

10. Poems of Alan Seeger. Scribner. Alan Seeger was an American poet who fought and died in WWI during the Battle Somme, serving in the French Foreign Legion. 

10. The Last Black Unicorn, by Tiffany Haddish. Gallery. The comedian recounts growing up in South Central Los Angeles, exacting revenge on an ex-boyfriend and finding success after a period of homelessness.