Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bestselling historical novels of 2012

This annual look at the bestselling historical novels in the U.S. from the past year is online a little late.  Publishers Weekly's Facts & Figures issue, which listed the hottest-selling titles from 2012, was published on March 18th.  The subtitle of Daisy Maryles' compilation for hardcovers is "Familiar names dominate, but units continue to erode."  In other words, we're seeing many of the same authors on the list, but fewer print editions are being sold... whereas for e-books, sales have exploded.

The usual disclaimer-y preface applies.  Books with hardcover domestic print sales over 100K were included in PW's list; publishers were asked to take returns into account through 2/15, but these figures weren't often available at the time.

Here are the historical novels that made it on the list.  See also my previous posts on this topic from 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 and 2007.

Among the top 15, there's only one historical novel:

#7  Ken Follett, Winter of the World, at 400,000+ copies.

Other mega-popular titles:  J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy was at #1 with 1.3 million copies sold.  We also have the usual suspects like James Patterson and John Grisham, plus other mysteries and thrillers, including Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl at #3.

Other historical novels with 100K+ hardcover copies sold, in descending order of sales:

Deborah Harkness, Shadow of Night (at 170,000+ copies)
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies
Dennis Lehane, Live By Night
Amor Towles, Rules of Civility
Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans
Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, The Thief: An Isaac Bell Adventure
Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth
Jeffrey Archer, Sins of the Father
Christopher Moore, Sacre Bleu

Most of these are continuing volumes in popular series, or new releases from previously bestselling authors.  PW notes that Rules of Civility and The Light Between Oceans are debut novels with "glowing reviews and impressive sales."  So is Twelve Tribes of Hattie, which was also, of course, an Oprah book club pick; note also that it came out on December 6th, so we may see it on next year's list, too.  Sweet Tooth is set in 1972, so not everyone will call it historical fiction, but it was promoted as such by the publisher.

Which ones have you read?  Alas, for me, only Winter of the World so far... my review is here.

Looking at the paperback bestsellers, George R.R. Martin dominates the mass market list, and no historicals are listed in this short section.  Mass market isn't a popular format for the genre.  Among trade paperbacks, we have Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter at 300K+ copies, then Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, Daisy Goodwin's The American Heiress, Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House (wonderful book; so glad to see this one succeed), The Dovekeepers, Rules of Civility again, in its pb edition, and a few more.  PW observes that the Fifty Shades books sold over 29 million copies (yes, 29 million copies) in trade paper, and over 15 million as e-books.  Nothing else comes close.

For e-book sales among historicals:  Stephen King's 11/22/63 and Kathryn Stockett's The Help are high up there with 400K+ copies apiece, plus some familiar faces: longtime book club favorite Water for Elephants, that vampire hunter again, Ken Follett, M.L. Stedman, and many other titles from the print lists. 


  1. I've read the Harkness, but it's not an historical novel -- it's a splendid mixture of fantasy and sf -- so much science, of both biology and physics, as we search for what is life, what is time, and how the relationship between the two can create immortality. It time travels, and that isn't an historical novel as I see an historical novel. It's the difference between Shadow On the Crown and Got.

    Love, c.

    1. My definition of historical fiction is quite broad, to include obvious candidates like Shadow on the Crown as well as fantasy and time-travel fiction with well-researched historical settings, like this one. I haven't read Shadow of Night yet, although I got a signed copy at ALA last year... but everything I've read about it indicates it would fall under my large umbrella (Booklist calls it a "historical fantasy epic"). I read and loved the first book. Which was definitely not historical fiction as it was set present-day. :)

  2. I have some of these books sitting in my to-read piles. I'll get to them eventually.

  3. And my definition has a much more narrow focus: it doesn't include historical romances either. As mentioned previously, I'm a classicist at heart: I don't like mashing.

    Which is another reason the Overton system for ebooks, audio books etc. is just so frackin' awful. You can't find anything even with specific info, unless it is very recent acquisition. And then, of course, it isn't available ....

    It mashes up everything from adult fiction to ya to children's, fantasy, sf, romances, and more -- and calls it historical fiction. Yet you can't find Dumas or Scott in either that category or classics!

    Surely library database designers could do better? This is the worst information access catalog that ever existed!

    Love, C.

  4. For more fun with definitions of historicals vs historical fantasy, etc., see this discussion in the UK Guardian.

    People come at this from all directions. Though it's televison here, it's the same kind of categorization breakdown and definition discussion, with many disagreements. :)

    Love, C.

  5. Hmm, there's something odd with that Guardian link. I can see it's there, but it's not clickable and I can't find the URL from it. Yes... there are many definitions out there.

    I figure you mean Overdrive? and yes, their interface needs work. It's improved greatly since the last version, though, which was very clunky. I wish there was a way to break down HF by subgenre, because I had to page through many listings before finding something that wasn't romance or YA. One nice thing I noticed is that there are many smaller presses represented, and quite a few ebook originals. That's new. I'll have to pay more attention to it. Vendors don't always follow librarians' suggestions on these things; they need to add a Boolean NOT so that titles can be filtered out if desired.

  6. Here's the url:

    Da Vinci's Demons: is there too much historical fantasy on screen?
    The eight-part drama starts tonight on Fox with Leonardo as a sword-wielding rogue. Later in the year sees a new version of The Three Musketeers, plus several pirate dramas and other historical epics. Is it all too much swashbuckling and sorcery?"

    There were interesting comments among the commentary! )

    Love, C.

  7. I watch very little TV so hadn't heard about the macho Leonardo epic. It doesn't sound promising. The comments did get long (didn't read them all) but... it IS odd, as one commenter said, that they're putting all of them in the historical fantasy category. Some of these things are not like the others.