Life-Expectancy of Bestsellers Plummets, Finds Study

Signs of Turmoil as Publishing Industry Gathers for Annual Book Expo and Da Vinci Code Film Arrives in Theatres

May 19, 2006 - The life-expectancy of a bestselling novel has halved within the last decade, according to a long-term study of fiction bestsellers. It has fallen to barely a seventh of its level 40 years ago.

The findings of the 50-year study are announced as America's book trade gathers in Washington for Book Expo (May 18-21), its largest annual get-together, while the movie of "The Da Vinci Code," the mother of all recent bestsellers, goes on worldwide release (May 19). The study was conducted by Lulu.com (www.lulu.com), the world's fastest-growing source of print-on-demand books.

The average number of weeks that a new No. 1 bestseller stayed top of the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List has fallen from 5.5 in the 1990s, 14 in the 1970s and 22 in the 1960s to barely a fortnight last year -- according to the study of the half-century from 1956-2005.

In the 1960s, fewer than three novels reached No. 1 in an average year; last year, 23 did.

"The blockbuster novel is heading the way of the mayfly," says Bob Young, CEO of Lulu.com, referring to the famously short-lived insect.

The plummeting life-expectancy of a fiction bestseller, says Young, reflects the way that the publishing industry is unravelling, in an age of over-production, plus media fragmentation and now disruptive new technologies such as the Internet and print-on-demand: "The publishing revolution is nigh."

Similar trends are happening in other sectors, from music to movies, adds Young. "It's part of a cultural shift."

The future of publishing, he continues, belongs to "niche-busters" -- books targeting a niche rather than mass market." Over 1,200 new niche-buster titles are now published on Lulu each week.

Although the latest annual book trade figures show the first fall in US book production for years, the period covered by Lulu's 50-year study saw a huge growth in the annual output of new titles. The number of books published in the US almost doubled between 1993 and 2004 -- from 104,124 to 190,078.

Blockbusters, of course, do still exist, concedes Young, who could not do otherwise in the week that the movie of "The Da Vinci Code" opens worldwide. Indeed, the biggest ones today sell more overall than their forerunners. But even uber-blockbusters like "The Da Vinci Code" fail to achieve the sort of unbroken dominance that was once routine.

The three novels to have topped the list for the longest stints during the 50 years studied were "Advise and Consent," a political thriller by Allen Drury, which hit No. 1 on Oct 14, 1959 and stayed there for 57 consecutive weeks; "The Source," an historical epic by James Michener, which reached No.1 on July 11, 1965 and stayed top for 43 weeks; and "Love Story," by Erich Segal, which, from May 10, 1970, bestrode the list for 41 weeks.

The longest unbroken spell that "The Da Vinci Code," by contrast, has topped the list was 13 weeks, between November 16 2003 and February 15 2004 -- or two months less than the average No. 1 bestseller in the 1960s. Dan Brown's novel first hit No.1 on April 6, 2003, but stayed top for just two weeks. It has since lost and regained the top spot over 15 times, for varying periods.

"The market today is more chaotic," says Young. "The churn rate is far higher."

A growing number of bestsellers, says Young, now spend just a single week atop the list. "The New York Times will soon have to publish its bestseller lists daily instead of weekly, in order to stay up-to-date."

ABOUT LULU.COM: Lulu.com, the world's fastest-growing source of print-on-demand books, lets you publish your own books, eBooks, calendars, images, music and videos at no advance cost. It was founded by Bob Young, who previously co-founded the software company, Red Hat.

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The Life Expectancy of Bestsellers:
Additional Data from the Lulu.com Study

THE LONGEST STINT AT NO. 1
FOR EACH DECADE STUDIED

1950s (1956--59) (Decade average: 16.4 weeks) 

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury – 57 weeks

Hit #1 on Oct 14, 1959, and stayed there for most of 1960. Drury was a political journalist for The New York Times itself and Advise and Consent told the inside story of a fictional US administration. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and is credited with inventing the genre of the political thriller.

1960s (Decade average: 21.7 weeks) 

The Source by James Michener – 43 Weeks

Hit No. 1 on Jul 11, 1965 and stayed top until it was knocked off the #1 spot by Jacquelin Susan’s Valley of the Dolls on May 8, 1966. The story revolves around an archaeological dig in Israel/Palestine, and takes the reader on a colourful and epic journey through the history of the Jews.

1970s (Decade average: 13.9 weeks) 

Love Story by Erich Segal – 41 weeks

Made No. 1 on May 10, 1970 and remained top for 41 consecutive weeks. It started life as a screenplay before a literary agent suggested that Segal make it into a novel. The following year, he turned it back into a script, which in turn spawned the hit 1971 movie of the same name.

1980s (Decade average: 7.2 weeks) 

The Covenant by James Michener – 25 weeks

Reached No.1 on November 2, 1980 and stayed there almost six months. Another Michener historical epic, it tells the story of the birth of the Zulu nation.

1990s (Decade average: 5.5 weeks) 

The Client by John Grisham – 23 weeks

Reached No.1 on March 21, 1993, staying top for 23 weeks – no other book this decade even got close to this.

This Grisham thriller tells the story of a kid who discovers a terrible secret and finds the Mafia and others on his tail, before a lawyer comes to his aid.

The 2000s (2000--2005) (Decade average: 3 weeks)

Blow Fly by Patrician Cornwell – 16 weeks

Hit No.1 on November 2, 2003. This suspense/crime novel is about a familiar Cornwell character, the forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta and her ex--FBI friends, here dragged from retirement for a further assignment.

By the 2000s many No. 1s spend just a single week at the top of the list.

AVERAGE ANNUAL NUMBER OF NOVELS
TO REACH NO. 1 PER DECADE STUDIED

  • 50s (1956--59): 3.8
  • 60s: 2.8
  • 70s: 4.4
  • 80s: 7.6
  • 90s: 10.0
  • 00s (2000--05): 18.2

The number of bestsellers per year has increased by over 700 per cent since the 1960s, more than doubled since the 80s and almost doubled since the 90s. If present trends continue, they will have doubled in the 00s compared to the 90s.

LIFE--EXPECTANCY OF NO. 1 BESTSELLERS
PER DECADE STUDIED

  • 50s (1956--59): 16.4
  • 60s: 21.7
  • 70s: 13.9
  • 80s: 7.2
  • 90s: 5.5
  • 00s: 3.0