PW met with Michael Korda, author of Making the List and editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, and Alan Kahn, COO of Barnes & Noble Inc., publisher of Making the List, in Korda's office in the S&S building in midtown Manhattan. Among the memorabilia from Korda's long and distinguished career in publishing on display in the office was a large ad for his own #1 bestselling nonfiction book, Power!
PW: How did Making the List come into being?
MK: It was entirely Barnes & Noble's idea. I'm in the middle of doing a book rather like Country Matters, called Horse People, about the relationship between people and horses. I thought this would be so interesting to do that I put on the brakes on Horse People and did this.
PW: Alan, how did it come about at B&N?
AK: I was visiting Publishers Weekly's library and saw the old Bowker book 80 Years of Best Sellers. And I've always been interested in what makes a bestseller. I thought a book like this would be wonderful—and Michael is the perfect person to do the book. The only question was whether he would want to.
MK: It would either have to be me or Bob Gottlieb [former editor-in-chief of Knopf]. Interestingly, prior to the 1950s, the bestseller list was significantly less important than it is today.
PW: To retailers? To the general public?
MK: Certainly it was less important to retailers, because retailers hadn't figured out what to do about it. With the advent of the huge first-printing popular novel with a commercial emphasis, suddenly you lived or died by the list. If you couldn't get Harold Robbins or Irving Wallace onto the list in large numbers very quickly, then the book just wasn't going to happen. That coincided with television, with publishers spending more money on advertising than they ever had before and with bookstores doing more than simply putting books in the windows. It's also interesting to me that the list goes back to the 19th century—and how little it's changed.
AK: It's surprising how it hasn't changed. If you look at the subjects in 1915 or 1920, you'll see health books and diet books, a lot of what you see today. And you will see a mix of literary and commercial books, just like now.
PW: Is it possible to discern the elements that go into a bestseller and then sit down and write one? Puzo claimed he did that with The Godfather. Of course, he said that after the fact.
MK: All across the country people are trying to do that. It doesn't work because actual bestsellers have a kind of X factor, which is very hard to put your finger on, but which is something between an energy and an immediate interest that the other books lack. You can take all the elements that went into, say, Rona Jaffe's Best of Everything, and not sell 3,000 books. It can't be done.
PW: Alan, what effect has the rise of the chains and the superstores had on bestseller lists? Say, in terms of promoting certain books over others?
AK: The public leads the stores and the publishers. We don't make bestsellers, we respond to the public.
MK: The big bestsellers aren't being created by Barnes & Noble. If you're a retailer and know that once a year you're going to get Mary Higgins Clark's book on a given date, you're going to have an awful lot of copies out there in time for that. You'd have to be simple-minded not to do that—although bookselling prior to 1950 never made that connection.
PW: Let's take a look at the current [Sept. 24] PW hardcover bestseller lists and see how it reflects the ideas discussed in Making the List.
MK: First of all, if Stephen King and Peter Straub weren't number one on the fiction list, it would be very surprising. Clive Cussler has always done very well, and reached number one with recent books. Ditto Julie Garwood, Sandra Brown, James Patterson. The Smoke Jumper is a little bit harder to figure because he [Nicholas Evans] hasn't written that many books and he doesn't have a regular pattern.
PW: So what we see here is the phenomenon of the same authors appearing year after year.
AK: And the Franzen represents the great writer, with great reviews, and the welcoming of his new book by the literati.
PW: And in nonfiction we see business, we see religion—the sorts of subjects that have made bestseller lists over the decades. What effect, if any, do you think the events of the last few weeks will have on the lists?
MK: I suspect that an awful lot of people will go out and by the Stephen Ambrose book [The Wild Blue]. And possibly even John Adams, for patriotic motives. Since I don't understand what The Prayer of Jabez is to begin with, I can't really deal with that, but my guess is that there could be a jump in inspirational books of a certain kind.
AK: There probably will be the instant books, and serious religious titles and books about Afghanistan. And some books that are already out now will get more attention. David McCullough's John Adams, for instance, talks about our freedoms and rights, which will be debated as we move forward.
MK: It strikes me that people want to be engaged, and that those who go into a bookstore in a time of crisis are much more likely to be looking for explanation than for escapism. This current list is not a bad list. Savage Beauty, the Nancy Milford book—now that's a book that is not easy to make into a bestseller. It's an expensive book, and I don't know how many people still read Edna St. Vincent Millay. That this book is on the list strikes me as a very good sign of health in American bookselling.
PW: One of the assumptions of Making the List is that bestseller lists reflect what people actually are reading and that these books mirror our national concerns. But how representative is the list really of American interests, when relatively so few people in this country read books?
MK: Numbers of sales do not correspond to numbers of readers. If someone like Mary [Higgins Clark] sells a million copies of a novel, that probably corresponds to three or four million readers. We add to that perhaps two-and-a-half to three million paperback readers, who probably don't pass the books around as much. So you're probably talking in this country five, six, even seven million readers, which is a substantial number,
AK: And we do need to keep in mind that the bestseller list is a small portion of what is selling, that the backlist and that the new midlist titles add up, in dollars and numbers, to something much greater.
MK: I'm always astonished when I go into Barnes & Noble at the number of people buying books, of course, but also at the variety of books they do buy and the extent to which they are not the big bestsellers. The bestseller list is the tip of the iceberg.