Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The New York Times Adult Fiction Bestselling Novels: 1960 to 2015

I've put together a database to analyze the novels which made it to the number one position on the New York Times Adult Fiction Bestseller list during the period of 1960 through April 2015. I excluded from my analysis the occasional collection of short stories (mostly Stephen King), two inspirational books that ran under 15,000 words, a graphic novel, and a pair of poetry books.


Since 1960, there have been 598 novels averaging 4.6 weeks at number one. The length of stay has changed greatly over the years. In the 1960s, the average entry stayed in the number one position for 16.1 weeks (four months). In the 2010s, the average stay has been 1.9 weeks.

If you wish to read all of these novels, they total 256,659 pages or 444.2 pages per book.

Novel lengths and word counts.

Word count is the gold standard for determining a novel's length. Page counts vary between printings and are manipulated so that short novels are puffed up and long novels are shortened, the latter to save printing expenses.

I could find actual word counts for 320 of the books in my database. I estimated word counts for an additional 261 using the length of the unabridged audio recording by a process previously described. This provided word count information for 97.2% of the novels and all but two of 487 novels since 1986, the exceptions being: Where is Joe Merchant? by Jimmy Buffett and The Force Unleashed by Sean Williams.

Word counts increased from the 1960s to the 1980s when the short novel disappeared: None of the 70 number one novels in the eighties was under 80,000 words*. The short novel returned in the 1990s and peaked in the 2000s. In the 2010s, so far, the average length has ticked upwards. While historical novels made up many of the lengthy books of the 1980s, in the 2010s it has been the epic fantasy. 

*I could not find or estimate the word count of Who Killed the Robins Family? by Thomas Chastain, 1983 and Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut 1979/1980 both of which were likely under 80,000 words.

The Great Feculence of Logorrhea of the 1980s
In the 1960s and 70s, novels under 100,000 words equaled the percentage of novels over 200,000 words. In the 1980s, the 200K+ novels were three times more common than those with less than 100K. In the 2000s this was reversed, those with less than 100K words were four times more common than those with more than 200K.

 The Bestseller List can be thought of as a vote of popularity (popularity = marketing x appeal). In this sense, presence on the list is less significant than the number of weeks present. Do people want long or short novels? In my above analyses, a novel appears for one week it gets an equal say as another novel which stayed for twenty weeks. I will follow-up with an analysis that weights for numbers of weeks present. 

In the meantime:

James Patterson Versus James Michener with a Surprise Appearance by a Celebrity.

The change in who dominated the bestseller list between the 1960s and the 2010s might best be illustrated by the difference between James Michener, who had the number one best selling novel for 49 weeks in 1960 to 1961, and James Patterson, who has had 49 number one bestsellers between 2001 and 2014.

As noted in a previous post, James Patterson is a serial tree killer (if only someone could invent a detective to hunt him down). He writes short books which he sells as medium-length books. While I have already commented on this phenomenon within the space of my more limited dataset, I now have the information to place his work in the context of all number one bestselling novels from 1960 to April 2015. 

The typical James Patterson number one bestselling novel has 68,565 words and is 383 pages. This averages out to be 178.2 words per page. If you remove Patterson's influence from this analysis, the remaining books average 314.9 words per page. For the unabridged audio versions of the other books, the readers take 2.2 minutes per page. For Patterson's books, a page is read in 1.2 minutes.

In contrast, James Michener wrote excruciatingly long novels. He first appeared in the top spot on the bestseller list in 1960 and had eight more novels in the number one position through 1988. His works averaged 437,463 words and 885 pages. Although his books were massive, they averaged 502.5 words per page. If Michener's Texas had as few words per page as the average Patterson novel, it would have run 3080 pages.

With just 9 novels in the number one position, Michener totaled more words than those in Patterson's 49 novels, 3,937,167 to 3,359,675.

In my database of the 581 novels since 1960 with word counts, James Patterson's novels take 35 of the top 37 spots of fewest words per page, including 11 of the top 12.

Although not known as a fiction author, Glenn Beck slunk into the number three spot with The Christmas Sweater, 43,500 words in 284 pages.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of one novel, A Predatory Mind (2013) from Loose Leaves Publishing. His mystery, Never Kill A Friend, will be available June 15th from Ransom Note Press. The sequel to A Predatory Mind is set to come out later this year.

Continued with: A Look at the Authors


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