Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bestselling historical novels of 2011

Publishers Weekly's annual announcement of bestsellers from the previous year is out.  Once again (see my previous posts from 2010, 2009, 2008 and 2007) I'm focusing on just the historical novels that made it.

Here's the full PW list from 2011, which starts off by saying "For both fiction and nonfiction hardcover titles, name-brand recognition is the key to bestseller success."  Which means that if a powerhouse bestselling author like Stephen King decided to write historical fiction, his novel would be on the list.  (And it is.) 

Books with hardcover domestic print sales over 100K were included in PW's list; publishers were asked to take returns into account, but some may not have, especially with end-of-year releases.  A separate ebook bestseller list is available (for PW subscribers only).

Among the top 15, we find these:

#2 - Stephen King, 11/22/63 (919,500+ copies)
#11 - Jean Auel, The Land of Painted Caves (447,600+ copies)

What I wrote in 2010:  "The rest of the top 15 is dominated by Stieg Larsson, a predictable crop of thrillers (Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson and his coauthors), plus Nicholas Sparks, a couple of mysteries, and Franzen's Freedom."  Subtract Freedom and add George R.R. Martin, and you'll have a nice description of 2011.

Other historical novels with over 100K copies sold are below, in descending order of sales.  I'm using a broad definition of "historical novel," to include historical mysteries, literary fiction set in the past, fantasy set in a real historical era, etc.

Paula McLain, The Paris Wife (at position 27, or 301K copies)
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley (Not bad for a December release - I wonder how many people got this as a Christmas gift?)
Lisa See, Dreams of Joy
Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, The Race
Charles Frazier, Nightwoods
Diana Gabaldon, The Scottish Prisoner
Alice Hoffman, The Dovekeepers
Jeffrey Archer, Only Time Will Tell
Philippa Gregory, The Lady of the Rivers
Geraldine Brooks, Caleb's Crossing

My library's online PW login has stopped working for some reason, so I haven't seen the mass market or e-book lists and will have to wait until the issue reaches my desk.  As before, it seems the best way to be a bestseller is to have been a bestseller, which gets circular quickly, but there are two debut novelists in there.

Amazingly, I've read some of these - the Gabaldon, Hoffman, Gregory, and Brooks.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Death Comes to Pemberley; much better than a lot of the Austen-inspired stuff out there. Though my favourite in this genre remains Pamela Aidan's Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy.

  2. It is interesting to see what makes this kind of list. I have only read a couple but they were good!

  3. Well, I see a few of my favorites on your list. I will have to check out the entire list on PW's website when I get back home later. Thanks for posting this.

  4. I added Calebs Crossing to my TBR pile after reading your review. Not too surprised by The Paris Wife and Night Circus. Almost everyone I ran into for a month or so was reading one or the other. The marketing on Death Comes to Pemberley was brilliant. It was prominently displayed in any store with a book for sale and kept popping up whenever I logged onto Amazon or B&N. I was well aware of the book long before I read the blurb. Off to check the ebooks…

  5. I would read (and hopefully will get round to it) Death Comes To Pemberley just because it's P.D. James. At least half of those sales had to come from fans.

  6. I've not read any of them and won't, with the exception that when the P.D. James book falls my way without any effort on my part I'll probably dash though it.

    Love, C.

  7. At the risk of sounding like the Grinch, I was disappointed by "Death Comes to Pemberley" - style isn't a substitute for substance.
    My thoughts here

    I also had prolems with "Dovekeepers". There's a story that goes around about the premiere of the movie "Exodus". Comedian Mort Sahl , bored by the lengthy film, is said to have stood up and exclaimed to director Otto Preminger: "Otto, let my people go!" That's the feeling I had about "Dovekeepers". A lot of people love it, and I can see why- it's a compelling and tragic story, vividly imagined - but it certainly does take the long and winding road to Masada. For me it's marred by excessive info dumping; beautifully done, admittedly, but indigestibly there all the same.There are few details of Jewish custom, myth/folklore, religious belief or ritual that she hasn't managed to educationally squash into her novel somewhere. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the story, but I definitely felt that less would have been more.

  8. I agree with you, Annis, on the Hoffman. Beautifully phrased in places, an evocative rendition of a tragic story, but I also found it painfully slow going (and I like literary fiction!).

    Death Comes to Pemberley wasn't in the publisher's catalog, which is how I usually find out about books, so it took me by surprise. I'm not much of a Janeite (heresy, I know) so haven't rushed out to get it yet.

  9. Deb, glad the Brooks review persuaded you to pick it up! It was one of my two favorites for 2011. I have copies of the others you mentioned, but they're still in the TBR.

  10. I wouldn't call myself a janeite, which to me are people who adore "Jane," without understanding a thing of what she's put into her books and characters, i.e. for them it's all Romance, which Austen is anything but. Which isn't Austen's fault, of course.

    Austen is deeply important, and not only to me though her work has informed my literary dna in significant ways and I both admire and love her work.

    I also very much like P.D. James's Dagliesh, so I will take a look at this one -- though, as said, only when it takes no effort on my part -- i.e. it will be sitting there one day on the library shelf, or somebody mails it to me, or leaves it on the Magic Window Sill of our apartment building where people leave perfectly good things that they don't want, in hopes that somebody else will take them.

    Love, C.

  11. Ah - didn't realize it had a negative or superficial connotation, which I hadn't intended. I have academic friends who use the word proudly! Austen sequels in general aren't my thing, although I can appreciate when authors take on well-known characters and themes and come up with something new.

  12. A little late with my comment - social media is so real time! I have to say that I'm tired of Gabaldon and I think Gregory should tackle a different story than 'strong woman deals with great tragedy' but perhaps I'm being harsh. What I really enjoyed was The Paris Wife.

    As you point out, publishers play it safe with tried and true authors. I wonder if they are like the band playing while the Titanic sank? I'll be interested to see if the e-book list differs significantly. Thanks for the interesting post.

  13. I can testify that Paula McLain is not only a very satisfying writer, but also very kind to others in the field.

  14. Congratulations to Diana Gabaldon and Stephen King!