As in past years, PW’s look at the adult frontlist bestsellers of 2019 reveals that many of the books the industry expected to dominate the lists did not. But last year was particularly anemic. Of the two 2019 “buzz books” that editors touted at BookExpo last spring, The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott appeared on the hardcover fiction list for a not-too-shabby 13 weeks, but that was still not enough to rank it among the top six titles of 2019 that remained on the list for 15 weeks or more. The Warehouse by Rob Hart, for which Crown had high hopes, didn’t make the hardcover fiction list at all.
The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s highly anticipated foray into fiction, did well, maintaining a spot for 13 weeks. Somewhat weaker than early chatter and critical response would have suggested are Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again, which lasted for 10 weeks, and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here, which won the critics’ hearts and landed on multiple 2019 best books lists. None of the five fiction finalists nor the five nonfiction finalists for the National Book Awards made the lists at all.
So what did impress on the list? The top of both the hardcover fiction and nonfiction lists were dominated by books that were published in the second half of 2018: Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing and Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Two weeks ago, PW reported that Crawdads, with more than 1.8 million print units sold according to NPD BookScan, was the top-selling fiction book of 2019. Now it claims the most bestseller list real estate of the year. The former first lady’s Becoming was the second top-selling book in print and was the longest-running title on the hardcover nonfiction list, with 39 weeks in 2019 and six in 2018, for a grand total of 45 weeks.
It isn’t always the case that annual sales rankings are proportional to weeks on the bestseller lists. Case in point: Alex Machaelides’s debut, The Silent Patient. It had an outstanding run on the hardcover fiction list, tying Crawdads with 36 weeks in 2019. However, despite selling more than 280,000 print copies in 2019, The Silent Patient did not make the top 20 print sellers list for the year.
Six novels lasted 15 weeks or more on the hardcover fiction list, down from eight in 2018 and seven in 2017. Accompanying the newbies were four literary giants whose names are synonymous with bestsellers: Margaret Atwood, John Grisham, Stephen King, and George R.R. Martin.
Despite the deafening roar of politics across every media platform every minute of every day, the only political book with real staying power on the hardcover nonfiction list was Mark R. Levin’s Unfreedom of the Press. Rachel Maddow’s Blowout made a lot of noise and managed to stay on the list for 12 weeks, while A Warning by Anonymous, which received enormous media coverage, hit the list for five weeks. Witch Hunt, Gregg Jarrett’s follow-up to The Russia Hoax, appeared for only two weeks, and Rand Paul didn’t quite make his Case Against Socialism, with the book reaching the list for only a week.
The 2018 longest-running hardcover nonfiction bestsellers ranking was rife with advice and self-help books, while a bit of variety spiced up the 2019 ranking. There was a touch of religion with Lysa TerKeurst’s It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way, and a dose of history with David McCullough’s The Pioneers. Rachel Hollis’s new advice was to stop apologizing, and Malcolm Gladwell dug into how we should communicate. And in spite of all this good information being proffered, Mark Manson insisted that Everything Is F*cked.
The trade paperback bestseller list had the most titles with long runs, led by The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn and There,There by Tommy Orange. Both remained on the list for 40 weeks and both spent time at #1. Two editions of The Mueller Report also reached the bestseller list. The Scribner edition stayed on the list for 15 weeks, while Skyhorse’s version charted for seven.
The Dance of the Big Five
Last year there were 20 bestseller positions per week in 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. In hardcover, Penguin Random House increased its share of the bestseller pie in 2019, with its titles taking 39.7% of the slots, up from 38.3% in 2018. HarperCollins retained second place with a 15.5% share, down slightly from 2018. Hachette bumped up to #3 in hardcover with a 15% share. Macmillan also jumped up a spot to #4, with 12.7% of the real estate, up almost five percentage points from 2018. Simon & Schuster slipped from third place to fifth, losing nearly two percentage points. The Big Five left very little space for other publishers, hogging a whopping 92.5% of all the hardcover bestsellers spots—an increase of more than five percentage points over 2018, but even with its 2017 share.
In the paperback arena, Kensington’s strength in mass market paperback mitigated the Big Five’s domination, but the Big Five still held 83.7% of bestseller slots in 2019. While remaining #1 with a 27.8% share, PRH lost nearly five percentage points and had HarperCollins nipping at its heels with a 25.4% share, up from 22.8% in 2018. Hachette retained its third-place ranking despite a slight decline in its share. Simon & Schuster’s share of paperback bestseller spots rose from 7.5% to 8.8%, and Macmillan had the smallest piece of paperbacks among the Big Five, with 6.3%, an increase of almost two percentage points over 2018.
Beyond the Quintet
We’ve taken a different approach this year in order to examine the publishing houses beyond the Big Five whose books landed on PW’s adult lists, putting the spotlight on smaller houses by ranking them separately. What emerges is that, with 35 books on the mass market list, Kensington made the biggest impression among non–Big Five houses on the bestseller lists. In fact, its 6.5% share of paperback bestseller slots is higher than Macmillan’s 6.3% share. The company’s strong showing in the category is not new—its success has been repeated year after year, due to its strength in the romance genre.
Norton had an impressive showing with the trade paperback of Richard Russo’s novel, The Overstory, which was on the list for 36 weeks. Sourcebooks Landmark made some noise with Kristina McMorris’s novel Sold on a Monday, which held on for 17 weeks on the trade paperback list. On the hardcover nonfiction list, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had 10 titles that held on for a total of 18 weeks (it also had four trade paperback bestsellers that spent a total of six weeks on the list). Hay House’s eight bestsellers racked up a total of 29 weeks on the hardcover nonfiction list, while Regnery accumulated 10 weeks on the same list.
What the charts on these pages don’t show is an endemic problem among publishers, big and small: dozens and dozens of titles across all formats make it onto their respective lists for only one week each. On the one hand, it makes the bestseller competition more egalitarian among publishers of all sizes, but on the other, it dilutes the significance of being a bestseller.
The problem of staying power is even more pronounced with the #1 slot. Of the 92 hardcover fiction, hardcover nonfiction, and trade paperback titles that sat on the throne, only eight wore the crown for more than four weeks. Where the Crawdads Sing held the spot for an astounding 24 weeks—and it was the only hardcover fiction title to rank #1 for more than four weeks.
If there’s one takeaway in analyzing the 2019 adult lists, it is that publishers and authors had best celebrate their bestsellers quickly, especially when they reach the top slot. Better pop that cork before it’s too late.