Sunday, September 24, 2006

Historical novels in LibraryThing

Last night, while cataloging books in LibraryThing, I started looking at how many other LibraryThing users owned copies of my recent purchases. As it turns out, few were shared by more than a handful of people. (Insert deep thoughts about my seemingly quirky reading preferences. ) Hmm.

Then I got a silly idea. What if I used LibraryThing as a tool to gauge the popularity of individual historical novels?

(Add disclaimers about the likelihood of LibraryThing users' reading preferences being similar to those of the entire reading population, etc. I never claimed this was scientific, so just look at this little study for what it is. However, the Historical Fiction group on LT has 230 members, so it is a popular subject there...)

I looked at all historical novels published in the USA between January and June 2006, according to the HNS forthcoming books page (which I compiled; it's essentially comprehensive as far as US trade publishers go). There were 200-odd in total. Then I looked them up in LibraryThing and saw how many people owned them. I've arranged them in descending order by number of copies, so the most popular historical novels are first. Only novels with 10 or more owners in LT are given. If anyone wants the complete list (in Excel) to satisfy your curiosity, email me. Direct all complaints about my faulty methodology to /dev/null. (And no, this didn't take anywhere near as long to compile as you'd think.)

The results surprised me. Do they surprise you?

249 copies - Julian Barnes, Arthur and George, Knopf
174 - Sarah Waters, The Night Watch, Riverhead
160 - Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants, Algonquin
121 - Sarah Dunant, In the Company of the Courtesan, Random House
94 - Matthew Pearl, The Poe Shadow, Random House
76 - Javier Sierra, The Secret Supper, Atria
63 - James Morrow, The Last Witchfinder, William Morrow
62 - Elizabeth Peters, Tomb of the Golden Bird, William Morrow
57 - Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman, HarperCollins
55 - Arturo Perez-Reverte, Purity of Blood, Putnam
48 - Debra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad, William Morrow
41 - Jane Harris, The Observations, Viking
40 - Boris Akunin, The Death of Achilles, Random House
37 - Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye, HarperCollins
35 - Eva Rice, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Dutton
35 - Stephen Wright, The Amalgamation Polka, Knopf
32 - Katharine Weber, Triangle, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
31 - Edward Rutherfurd, The Rebels of Ireland, Doubleday
30 - Katharine McMahon, The Alchemist's Daughter, Crown
30 - Martin Davies, The Conjurer's Bird, Crown
28 - Alan Furst, The Foreign Correspondent, Random House
28 - Karen Essex, Leonardo's Swans, Doubleday
27 - Jane Urquhart, A Map of Glass, MacAdam/Cage
26 - Julia Alvarez, Saving the World, Algonquin
24 - Anne Easter Smith, A Rose for the Crown, Touchstone
24 - Carrie Tiffany, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, Scribner
24 - Laura Esquivel, Malinche, Atria
23 - Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, Atria
22 - Anne Perry, Dark Assassin, Ballantine
22 - Carol Goodman, The Ghost Orchid, Ballantine
21 - Emily Barton, Brookland, Farrar Straus & Giroux
21 - Ivan Doig, The Whistling Season, Harcourt
21 - Susan Carroll, The Silver Rose, Ballantine
19 - Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues, Poisoned Pen Press
19 - Marie Arana, Cellophane, Dial
19 - Sara Gran, Dope, Putnam
17 - Conn Iggulden, Emperor: The Gods of War, Delacorte
17 - Judith Lindbergh, The Thrall's Tale, Viking
17 - Robert Alexander, Rasputin's Daughter, Viking
16 - Manda Scott, Boudica: Dreaming the Hound, Bantam
16 - Shan Sa, Empress, HarperCollins
15 - Jason Goodwin, The Janissary Tree, Farrar Straus & Giroux
15 - Karen Harper, The Last Boleyn, Three Rivers
14 - Elizabeth Aston, The True Darcy Spirit, Touchstone
13 - Jenny White, The Sultan's Seal, W.W. Norton
13 - Kevin Baker, Strivers Row, HarperCollins
13 - Peter Hobbs, The Short Day Dying, Harvest
13 - Susan Straight, A Million Nightingales, Pantheon
12 - Amanda Elyot, By a Lady, Three Rivers
12 - Ariana Franklin, City of Shadows, William Morrow
12 - Athol Dickson, River Rising, Bethany House
12 - Steve Hockensmith, Holmes on the Range, Minotaur
11 - Gilles Rozier, The Mercy Room, Arcade
11 - Peter C. Brown, The Fugitive Wife, W.W. Norton
11 - Posie Graeme-Evans, The Uncrowned Queen, Atria
11 - Sally Gunning, The Widow's War, William Morrow
11 - W.E.B. Griffin and W. E. Butterworth IV, The Saboteurs, Putnam
10 - Charles Todd, A Long Shadow, William Morrow
10 - Laurien Gardner, A Lady Raised High, NAL
10 - Mary Sharratt, The Vanishing Point, Mariner


  1. Nobody's commented on this so far, so I will.

    Has anyone read Julian Barnes' Arthur and George? It surprised me to see it was the most popular, but it has great reviews on Amazon, and was apparently short-listed for the Booker. I guess I'm out of the loop on this one. (I own a copy; was sent a dupe by the publisher, haven't read it yet)

    There are also very few trade paperback originals on this list... not sure if that's of any significance.

  2. I've been thinking about it. It didn't surprise me to see Arthur and George or The Night Watch in the top two spots, because both books have been all over the press on this side of the Atlantic (and I suppose on your side too). Both are Booker nominees, if I remember correctly, which perhaps gives them a sort of literary patina that labels them as Great Novels.

    I'm afraid I haven't read either, and from the accounts I've read and heard neither is very high up my list. Both sound too long on literary prose and too short on story for my taste.

    The rest of the list didn't either surprise me or not surprise me. I recognised some books on it that I would expect to be highly popular or that I remember seeing a lot of press coverage/advertising/marketing for (Bernard Cornwell's The Pale Horseman, Conn Iggulden's Emperor, Manda Scott's Boudica, Jane Harris's The Observations), but equally there were books I would have expected to be highly popular that weren't on the list at all (the rest of Bernard Cornwell's output, the rest of the Emperor and Boudica series, Philippa Gregory's novels). So I am a little baffled as to what it might mean.

  3. That would be interesting to know, how many people have actually read the books on the list. I own The Night Watch also, haven't read it yet, but generally enjoy Sarah Waters's novels.

    I was looking only at novels appearing in the first half of 2006, which is why the others you mentioned weren't there.

    One omission (because I messed up the title on the HNS list): Paul Malmont's The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril at 36 copies.

  4. Ah, right, that explains it. I recognised several as recent but thought that perhaps people might tend to put their new books on LT before they do their whole collections.

    I've heard/seen several comments that Night Watch doesn't have as strong a story as her previous novels. I'll be interested to hear your views.

    Why did the list surprise you?

  5. For one, that Arthur and George was owned by ten times more people than some other novels I thought were very popular. I also didn't expect to see Last Witchfinder so high (but was pleased at this) because I haven't encountered many besides me who've read it.

    The Sarahs/Saras at the top didn't surprise me at all, though.

  6. I only own--and have read-- one of the books on your list, and I only see one other that I'm planning to read. However, I don't read new books all that often. So, although I have lots of books tagged historical fiction on LIbraryThing, I don't have many books of any kind that were published in 2006.

  7. Hmm. I own slightly over half of the books on the list, but have read only four. (The Observations, The Widow's War, The Last Witchfinder, The Vanishing Point). All of which were excellent. I try to mix up reading older and newer novels, just for variety's sake.

  8. I must live under a rock, half of those books I've never even heard of. Though my reading tastes tend towards the UK....
    Hey that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!!