If there is one takeaway from looking at the past year in bestsellers, it’s that there is a kind of discrepancy—not unlike the electoral college vs. the popular vote—between the lists themselves, the noise surrounding certain books, and the actual sales numbers. Many of the books that one would expect to command top-of-the-list status or last longest did not.
Two weeks ago, PW published the top-selling titles of 2018, and to no one’s surprise, Michelle Obama’s Becoming won the crown, having sold 3.4 million print copies—nearly three times as much as the #2 title, The Magnolia Table by Joanna Gaines. But Becoming didn’t make our longest-running hardcover nonfiction list (for which a book must have been on the list for at least 15 weeks), because it wasn’t published until November 13 and there simply weren’t enough weeks left in the year to allow it to reach the minimum requirement. What is surprising is that the Trump-inspired political books that grabbed the lion’s share of media attention—and sold very well—had plenty of time to stick to the adult lists but didn’t.
Neither Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, Fear by Bob Woodward, nor James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty (which sold one million print copies, 692,238 print copies, and 611,737 print copies, respectively) stayed on the hardcover bestseller list for 15 weeks. Fire and Fury came the closest, with 14 weeks on the nonfiction list, whereas Fear hit the charts for 11 weeks and Higher Loyalty for nine. This suggests that the speed of sales of those titles somewhat mirrored the news cycle, in which stories appear, explode, and then vanish quickly.
And if anyone is still wondering about coloring books, the hottest category two years ago—well, to quote a famous munchkin: they’re “not only merely dead, they’re really, most sincerely dead.” What remains in nonfiction is a trend that emerged last year of readers seeking advice, with such books as Make Your Bed by former Navy SEAL admiral William H. McRaven, which continued onto this year’s longest-running list, adding 16 weeks to 2017’s 34 weeks, and The Magnolia Table, Gaines’s follow-up to The Magnolia Story.
This year, the trend went further, with readers not just wanting advice but wanting to be told what to do. At 40 weeks, Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis had the longest stay on the hardcover nonfiction list, with Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life tied for second place alongside Educated by Tara Westover. Of the nine books that spent 15 weeks or more on the hardcover nonfiction list, only three—Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Educated, and The Soul of America—didn’t offer advice for improving one’s lifestyle. Pulitizer Prize–winning biographer John Meachem’s The Soul of America was the only book on the list that examined the current political moment in America at all.
As noted, there were nine nonfiction titles that stayed on the list for 15 weeks or more in 2018, down 44% from the previous year’s 16, which was up a bit from 14 in 2016. There was less change in fiction, with 2018’s eight titles down one from 2017 but up one from 2016. Of note among the longest-running fiction hardcovers is that two relative newcomers took the top two spots. Celeste Ng’s sophomore effort, Little Fires Everywhere, was on the list for 40 weeks, followed by A.J. Finn’s debut, The Woman in the Window.
Biggies Remain Big
To no one’s surprise, the Big Five publishers continued to dominate the adult bestseller space in 2018. Last year there were 20 bestseller positions per week on each of PW’s four adult lists—hardcover fiction, hardcover nonfiction, trade paperback, and mass market—for a total of 2,080 hardcover positions and 2,080 paperback positions. Prior to 2018, the lists were composed of 25 titles each, for a total of 2,600 positions each for hardcover and paperback. The Big Five owned 92.5% of the hardcover positions last year, a nearly six percentage point increase over 2017’s 86.8%. In paperback, there was little change, at 84.1% in 2018 compared to 84.6% in the previous year.
One reason the Big Five don’t dominate paperback bestseller lists as much as they dominate hardcover lists is Kensington’s success in the mass market segment. It had 37 titles on the 2018 mass market bestseller list, taking 128 positions and giving the publisher 13% of the total spots on the list, beating Hachette and Macmillan. HarperCollins’s HQN and Mira imprints placed 24 and 23 titles, respectively, on the mass market list—more than any other imprints. And HarperCollins’s Avon imprint tied Penguin Random House’s Berkley imprint for third place, with 20 mass market bestsellers.
But there is no reason to feel sorry for PRH in terms of overall bestsellers, especially on the hardcover front, where it had a 38.3% share in 2018, more than 21 percentage points ahead of second-place HarperCollins. Each of the Big Five gained share on the hardcover lists last year at the expense of smaller rivals.
As is usually the case, in paperback, PRH’s lead over second-place HarperCollins was smaller last year than in hardcover—just under 10 percentage points, which was a bit bigger than its seven-percentage-point edge in 2017. HarperCollins’s share of the paperback bestseller lists was just about flat in 2018 compared to 2017, while S&S and Macmillan both lost some ground. Hachette’s share of the paperback bestseller pie rose to 17% from 14% in 2017.
For the past five years, the trade paperback list has been dominated by Grand Central with titles by James Patterson and his various coauthors. In 2018, there were 16 Patterson titles on the list and four from David Baldacci, putting Grand Central firmly in the lead (it had a total of 25 titles on the list). The outstanding performance of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko also helped—it spent the most weeks on the trade paper list, at 47.
Liftoff for Launches
In 2017, the results for debut novels hitting the hardcover bestseller list were grim, with only six making the chart, and of those six, only two staying beyond a single week. Last year was much kinder to newbies, with nine titles gracing the hardcover fiction list for various lengths of time. The most successful of these was A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window, which spent 38 weeks on the hardcover fiction list last year, giving it a grand total of 104 weeks on the list since its publication in 2016.
Though the other fiction debuts didn’t come close to that performance, six titles showed some staying power. There, There by Tommy Orange spent 14 weeks on the hardcover list, demonstrating the benefits of early buzz and widespread critical acclaim. Right behind it was Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, which held on for 13 weeks. Also at 13 weeks was a debut hybrid, The Wife Between Us by veteran editor and debut author Greer Hendricks and established bestselling author Sarah Pekkanen. Four other novels lasted two to six weeks on the hardcover list, and another two held on for only a week.
Overall, the fiction bestseller landscape in 2018 remained mostly unchanged from recent years, with a newcomer or two showing strength surrounded by familiar names. Last year there were eight titles that had staying power beyond 15 weeks, whereas there were 10 the previous year. Five titles hung on for more than 20 weeks in 2018, compared to only three the previous year. The top two longest-running 2018 titles, Little Fires Everywhere and The Woman in the Window, were close competitors, staying on the list for 40 and 38 weeks, respectively. In 2017, A Gentleman in Moscow, the longest-selling title at 41 weeks, didn’t have any others nipping at its heels. The Underground Railroad was 11 weeks behind, with 30 total.
Reaching the Summit
There was little correlation between a title’s highest position on the hardcover fiction list and the length of time it spent on the list. The longest-running novel, Little Fires Everywhere, was published in 2017 and spent a total of 54 weeks on the list, but it didn’t reach the #1 spot. The runner up, The Woman in the Window, claimed the top spot for only four weeks of its 38-week bestseller run. Stephen King’s The Outsider spent eight weeks at #1, dominating the list longer than any other title before falling off the list altogether after 26 weeks.
The correlation between peak position and weeks on the list was stronger among trade paperbacks. The Tattooist of Auschwitz was #1 for an impressive 11 of its 15 weeks, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was #1 for 10 of its 28 weeks, and The Sun and Her Flowers held the spot for eight of its 42 weeks.
Only five titles remained on the mass market list for 15 weeks or more, but all of them reached the #1 spot. Origin lasted the longest at #1, spending seven weeks of its 15 total there.
In a chronicle of 2019 bestseller lists foretold, Becoming commanded the #1 spot for the last five weeks of 2018. As previously mentioned, it was published too late in the year to rank in our longest-running list. And, though Fire and Fury, on the list for 14 weeks, didn’t make the longest-running list, it did spend six weeks at #1. The Magnolia Table and Girl Wash Your Face spent eight and five weeks, respectively, at #1, but stuck around the list much longer.
Bestsellers by Corporation
How the Big Five fared on PW ’s 2018 lists
|Books||Positions||Share 2018*||Share 2017||Books||Positions||Share 2018*||Share 2017|
|Penguin Random House||196||797||38.3%||37.9%||116||674||32.4%||29.0%|
|Simon & Schuster||65||269||12.9%||11.5%||33||156||7.5%||11.3%|
PW’s 2018 Longest-running Bestsellers
Weeks on the 2018 bestseller lists
|40||Little Fires Everywhere||Celeste Ng||Penguin Press (14)|
|38||*The Woman in the Window||A.J. Finn||Morrow|
|29||*The Great Alone||Kristin Hannah||St. Martin’s|
|28||Before We Were Yours||Lisa Wingate||Ballantine (25)|
|26||*The Outsider||Stephen King||Scribner|
|21||*The President is Missing||Bill Clinton and James Patterson||Little, Brown/Knopf|
|16||*Origin||Dan Brown||Doubleday (11)|
|15||*The Fallen||David Baldacci||Grand Central|
|40||*Girl, Wash Your Face||Rachel Hollis||Thomas Nelson|
|39||Educated||Tara Westover||Random House|
|39||*12 Rules for Life||Jordan B. Peterson||Random House Canada|
|33||*Magnolia Table||Joanna Gaines||Morrow|
|32||Astrophysics for People in a Hurry||Neil deGrasse Tyson||Norton (32)|
|18||The Soul of America||Jon Meacham||Random House|
|18||*I’ve Been Thinking||Maria Shriver||Viking/Dorman|
|16||The Plant Paradox Cookbook||Steven R. Gundry||Harper Wave|
|16||Make Your Bed||William H. McRaven||Grand Central (34)|
|Mass Market Paperback|
|20||*Camino Island||John Grisham||Dell|
|18||*The Rooster Bar||John Grisham||Dell|
|15||*The Midnight Line||Lee Child||Dell|
|15||*The Fix||David Baldacci||Vision|
|47||Pachinko||Min Jin Lee||Grand Central (5)|
|42||*The Sun and Her Flowers||Rupi Kaur||Andrews McMeel (11)|
|31||Sapiens||Yuval Noah Harari||Harper Perennial|
|30||Less||Andrew Sean Greer||Back Bay|
|30||*Everybody, Always||Bob Goff||Thomas Nelson|
|28||Instant Pot Miracle||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (11)|
|28||Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine||Gail Honeyman||Penguin|
|24||We Were the Lucky Ones||Georgia Hunter||Penguin|
|21||*Small Great Things||Jodi Picoult||Ballantine|
|21||*The Lying Game||Ruth Ware||Gallery/Scout|
|20||*Killers of the Flower Moon||David Grann||Vintage|
|20||*Rich People Problems||Kevin Kwan||Anchor|
|18||The Woman in Cabin 10||Ruth Ware||Gallery/Scout (36)|
|15||*The Tattooist of Auschwitz||Heather Morris||Harper|
|15||Call Me By Your Name||Andre Aciman||Picador|
|15||*Into the Water||Paula Hawkins||Riverhead|
*These titles reached the #1 spot on PW’s weekly bestseller lists at least once in 2018.
Note: The numbers in parentheses indicate how many weeks the title in question spent on PW’s bestseller lists prior to 2018.
Ranking the Houses
How the divisions and imprints competed in 2018
|Publisher||Titles on Lists||Positions on Lists|
|Simon & Schuster||26||117|
|Houghton Mifflin Harcourt||8||25|
|Spiegel & Grau||5||13|
|Wizards of the Coast||4||4|
|Random House Canada||2||41|
|Guinness World Records||2||9|
|North Star Way||1||2|
|Houghton Mifflin Harcourt||6||45|
|America’s Test Kitchen||3||3|
|Simon & Schuster||2||6|
|World Almanac Books||2||4|
|Old Farmer’s Almanac||2||3|
|David C. Cook||1||6|
|Plaza & Janés||1||3|
|B. Renner Fitness||1||2|
|Taste of Home||1||2|
Note: Publishers that had a single title hit the lists for just one week are not included in the ranking.