As Penguin Random House fights with the Department of Justice to win approval of its acquisition of Simon & Schuster, industry consolidation is once again a hot topic. A look at PW’s weekly print bestseller lists last year provides ammunition both for those who believe consolidation has gone too far, and for those who think the industry remains very competitive.
There is no doubt that the Big Five, led by Penguin Random House, dominate much of the U.S.’s adult bestseller lists, but the data shows its grip isn’t quite as tight as it once was. Every week, PW publishes four adult bestseller lists, each with 20 titles: hardcover fiction, hardcover nonfiction, trade paperback, and mass market paperback. That means that over the course of a year, there are 2,080 hardcover positions on our lists and 2,080 paperback positions. The Big Five controlled 91% of hardcover bestseller slots in 2021—up from 89.1% in 2020, but down from 92.5% in 2019. In paperback, the downward trend is more pronounced, as the Big Five’s share of bestseller slots in the format fell from 83.7% in 2019 to 77.4% last year.
Within the Big Five, there was considerable shifting. PRH lost ground on the 2021 bestseller lists in both hardcover and paperback formats, while Macmillan and the Hachette Book Group increased their share of hardcover slots. As a result, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and S&S each had just over a 13% share of hardcover bestseller positions in 2021, though PRH, despite losing nearly a full percentage point of its share of hardcover slots, still had a commanding lead over second-place S&S.
On the paperback side, HC widened its lead over PRH. HC took 27% of all paperback positions on our lists, compared to 21.5% for PRH. HC was able to increase its lead in paperback because, driven by Harlequin, it had 142 titles reach the mass market list, compared to 36 from PRH’s mass market imprints. PRH had a slight lead in trade paperback with 28 bestselling titles, compared to 25 for HC.
If the court approves PRH’s acquisition of S&S, based on 2021 results, the combined company would occupy 51.3% of PW’s hardcover bestseller slots and 26.8% of our paperback slots.
The number of independent and small presses with books hitting the bestseller lists increased last year, but the staying power of their titles on the lists is far weaker than those of the Big Five. Very few indie imprints had more than five titles on any given list in 2021, and many of their titles were on for only a few weeks. The big exception is Kensington, which placed 40 books on the mass market bestseller list—more than any other publisher expect HC. Those titles averaged a stay of almost four weeks on the list.
Another independent press that had a great 2021 on the bestseller lists was Viz Media. The graphic novel publisher rode the wave of interest in its category (graphic novels were the fastest-growing adult genre last year) and landed 49 titles on the trade paperback list, up from 19 in 2020.
Hype vs. reality
Often, the most anticipated and most buzzed about books of a given year don’t become long-running bestsellers. Early last year, in connection with ABA’s annual Winter Institute and PW’s inaugural U.S. Book Show, PW talked with editors about which 2021 books they were most excited about. Of the 27 fiction titles touted by editors at WI, four made a bestseller list: The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster, and Act Your Own Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert. On the nonfiction side, three out of 19 made it to a bestseller list: Broken by Jenny Lawson, Fox and I by Catherine Raven, and How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith.
The Editor’s Buzz panel at the U.S. Book Show put the spotlight on other titles that fared a bit better on the lists. The novels that were backed by their editors and hit the lists were Beautiful World, Where are You by Sally Rooney, Matrix by Lauren Groff, L.A. Weather by María Amparo Escandón, and Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart. The only nonfiction title that was hyped and achieved bestseller status was Stanley Tucci’s Taste.
What readers wanted
The onslaught of books about politics and from politicians abated last year, though examinations of crucial contemporary issues were popular. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste continued to resonate, with readers adding 30 more weeks on our bestseller lists to last year’s 20, and Mark R. Levin’s American Marxism enjoyed a capitalist success, spending 22 weeks on our lists.
Readers continue to be drawn to memoirs and books that offer lessons about how to lead a better life. Coming-of-age memoirs like Crying in H Mart by Korean American writer Michelle Zauner and Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford, a Black woman from the Midwest, struck a chord, as did The Hill We Climb, Amanda’s Gorman’s poem that enthralled the nation when she recited it at President Biden’s inauguration. The best-performing memoir in 2021 was Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights, with a 39-week run, beating by a wide margin Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, which was on the list for 15 weeks last year following a five-week run in 2020.
What many readers, but not quite as many as 2020, apparently want is to kick it old school and look at maps. Rand McNally’s 2021 Large Scale Road Atlas spent a very healthy 16 weeks on the bestseller list, down a bit from 2020’s 21 weeks.
Newbies on the rise
Ten rookie novelists made it to a bestseller list last year, an increase from eight in 2020. Of those, only three were one-week wonders, while the other seven held on for four weeks or more. The three debuts with the longest bestseller stays were The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller (12 weeks), The Sanitorium by Sarah Pearse (9), and The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner (8).
Once again, the heartening takeaway is that the vast audience of readers around the country make their own choices. The glossy pages, gossip pages, and pundits may spread the word about their favorites, but ultimately readers decide which books are opened and read.