Friday, April 04, 2008

How to become a bestselling historical novelist

Publishers Weekly's March 24 issue just hit my desk today (I see them a week late) and I was pleased to note it was their 2007 Facts and Figures issue. Earlier this year, letters went out from PW to publishers asking them to submit sales figures on titles that sold more than 100,000 copies during 2007. Only sales to bookstores, wholesalers, and libraries counted. Book club editions and overseas sales did not.

The complete results are here, but to make things easier for you, I'll be pulling out some info on historical novels that made the list, for the hardcover fiction category at least.

There are no historical novels in spots #1-15 on PW's list. These places are dominated by thrillers, particularly James Patterson (who has a ridiculous 5 titles there), mysteries, Jodi Picoult, and of course Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, with 2.2+ million copies sold. But as for the rest of the list, we find the following. The numbers in parentheses indicate total sales as reported to PW.

#16 - Rhett Butler's People, Donald McCaig (606,304)
#19 - World Without End, Ken Follett (552,165)
#21 - The Chase, Clive Cussler (478,195)

Others, all with sales from 250,000 to 100,000 copies, in descending order:

Everlasting, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon
The Boleyn Inheritance, Philippa Gregory
Mark's Story, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
The Double Agents, W.E.B. Griffin and William E. Butterworth IV
The Ravenscar Dynasty, Barbara Taylor Bradford
The Bone Garden, Tess Gerritsen
The Heir, Barbara Taylor Bradford
Peony in Love, Lisa See
Loving Frank, Nancy Horan
Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th, Newt Gingrich and William R. Fortschen
The River Knows, Amanda Quick
Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
Away, Amy Bloom
Up in Honey's Room, Elmore Leonard
The Lady in Blue, Javier Sierra
The Quest, Wilbur Smith

Based on this information, it would seem that being a bestselling historical novelist (in hardcover) during 2007 required one or more of the following:
  1. Writing a highly anticipated sequel to a beloved historical novel that also happened to be a bestseller.
  2. Having your previous XX novels, historical or not, be bestsellers.
  3. Garnering uniformly stellar reviews and having your publisher back your efforts with a large-scale marketing campaign.
  4. Being (a) a famous political figure or (b) an author of the Left Behind series or (c) an author who died in 2007, leaving behind a manuscript for a final novel.
  5. Writing a very good book that appeals to an awful lot of different people. (Yes, probably self-evident, but...) Extra points if it's so good that it receives award nominations in two or more fiction genres and/or works extremely well with book clubs.

"Veteran novelists and Media Stars Make the Top Grades," reads the article's subtitle, which covers a lot of it. Taking a closer look at the list... there are few commonalities in terms of historical setting, and there's a mix of thrillers, literary titles, romances, sagas, alternate histories, and other things that are hard to categorize. Several are first efforts in historical fiction from bestselling authors known for their work in other genres.

PW compiles separate lists for trade paperbacks and mass market, which you can also read about, but I'll mention a few huge sellers in trade paperback as well, such as Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, and Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, with 1.0 to 1.4 million sales apiece in 2007. The last three, of course, were Oprah picks. Philippa Gregory's The Constant Princess had sales of 318,000, while The Boleyn Inheritance added 242,000 sales in trade paperback to its hardcover total of 211,000 (in the same year).

Which ones have I read? Only Rhett Butler's People, which I thoroughly enjoyed (with a few small caveats) and The Boleyn Inheritance (ditto). Among those in trade, I've read Pillars of the Earth and The Constant Princess, both of which I liked, but I wouldn't put either on a list of all-time favorites.


  1. I was tickled by your tongue-in-cheek and thoroughly correct view of this subject! I'm a first time author in the genre and to date, because no one recognises my name, am selling few copies. It would be suitable for young adults and a wide range of other readers, since the heat level is classed as 'sweet' and I researched the background in depth.
    It's called The Pirate And The Puritan and is NOT to be confused with Cheryl Howe's novel of the same title, which I did not know existed until a couple of months ago. Mine has a classy cover and now 3 reviews on Amazon, so hopefully that's a start!
    Regards, Monya

  2. Hi Monya, thanks for your comments, and best of luck with your novel! It does have a classy (and very historical-looking) cover.

    There are historical novels that sell in respectable numbers, but getting up to the 100K+ mark is pretty well unattainable unless you're one of a select few. Not to begrudge these authors their success - many have been writing for decades and have built up a large audience during that time. Nancy Horan is the only debut novelist on the list. I'd be interested to see more stats on historical novel sales below the 100K mark, but don't have ready access to this data.

  3. I thought your blog today was fabulous and pathetically true. I couldn't agree more. I hate the "best seller" lists and usually have read the book before it gets there, coincidently.
    Monya, good luck with your book. I took a look at it on Amazon and read the reviews. I will definitely take a look at it when I visit Borders next. Thanks for sharing on the blog.

  4. Sarah - You understand the way the system works too well.

    I'm delurking to say that this is an odd coincidence, as I have been posting about related matters recently.

  5. Hi Rosina, thanks for pointing out your blog post, which I'll link for readers here. I'll second (or third, etc) the comments that it provides a lot of insight into sales of historical novels, and the associated financials.

  6. I remember really well what it was like before my first novel came out, trying to make sense of the way the money worked. So I'm glad you found it interesting. Thanks!

  7. Just check all the boxes:

    "Mary Magdalene, wife of Jesus, and daughter of an Irish Druid who taught her surgery and herbalism, solves murders in first-century Palestine".

  8. Alan, I don't know of such a novel yet, but there is one series that comes awfully close!