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Connecting the Numbers
Daisy Maryles -- 1/10/00
A handful of publishers and authors dominate the charts... and then there's Oprah

Perhaps it will be different in the next millennium, but the single word that best defined the bestseller game in the last decade of the 20th century was domination. In 1997, the merger news involved Penguin and Putnam; in 1998, the big merger was the combination of Random House and Bantam Doubleday Dell; and last year it was HarperCollins' takeover of Morrow and Avon. That means that each year, even fewer corporations control the weekly bestseller charts.

The 1999 numbers show that five corporations captured about 85% of all the slots on PW's weekly hardcover charts and that those same five occupied about 85% of all the slots on the paperback charts. One megagroup -- Random House Inc. -- alone accounts for almost 40% of all hardcover bestsellers and one-third of all paperback bestsellers. Add five more corporations to that mix and you have 10 firms occupying about 95% of all hardcover bestseller positions and 10 holding about 96% of all paperback slots. So much in the hands of so few has been the story for most of the '90s.

And who are the authors that command the greatest percentage of bestseller real estate? Here the list of names is longer, but almost none of them are new. In hardcover fiction, 10 authors enjoyed 30% of all available 1999 slots. That lineup includes Stephen King, John Grisham, Danielle Steel, Maeve Binchy, Patricia Cornwell, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary Higgins Clark, James Patterson, Anne Rice and Tom Wolfe. Add a few names like Thomas Harris (whose last blockbuster was written about 10 years ago) and two new names -- Janet Fitch and Melissa Bank -- and the percentage for 13 writers g s up to a little over 37%.

In nonfiction, more territory was in the hands of a smaller group. Only 10 authors collectively controlled 46.7% of all available nonfiction hardcover slots. They are Mitch Albom, Iyanla Vanzant, the Sugar Busters authors, Tom Brokaw, the Dalai Lama, Suzanne Somers, Peter Jennings, Philip McGraw, Bill Phillips and Suze Orman.

In paperback, the power of Oprah was especially impressive. Eight of her book club choices enjoyed a total of 171 bestselling weeks in the course of 1999; that represents about 22% of all available slots. Nora Roberts continued to rule in mass market: she occupied about 8% of all available slots with her 12 mass market bestsellers; that was in addition to two hardcover fiction bestsellers (she had 11 bestsellers in 1998). And in a list dominated by reprints of the previous year's fiction bestsellers and genre fiction originals, books on diet and fitness once again made their mark; almost 15% of all available mass market slots were in that category.

Comparing the Numbers
The tally for the titles that did make the 1999 charts for the first time set a new record -- 352 titles in total; that easily broke the record set back in 1990 when 319 books made that year's list for the first time. In 1998, the number of books that made it onto the charts was 312. The list that had the largest gain in 1999 was fiction hardcover, with 105 new books. That handily broke yet another 1990 record, when 90 hardcover novels made the weekly charts.

In nonfiction, 72 books made a first appearance, a bit more than the record set last year, at 69 hardcover titles. The mass market category also set a record, with 125 new books on the weekly charts. The previous record was 117, back in 1997. Trade paper had 50 new books on the lists, a tad under the 53 that were on the '98 charts.

Getting to first was harder than ever. Only 49 books had a run at the top, one of the lowest numbers of the decade. In fiction, 15 novels made it to #1 and all but four stayed at the top for one month or less. John Grisham's The Testament and Thomas Harris's Hannibal tied for the longest run -- eight weeks in the lead. Patricia Cornwell's Black Notice enjoyed the lead for six weeks and Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace hung in for five weeks. While aggressive promotion and lots of media attention helped many more fiction books get a shot at stardom, fewer had a chance to build momentum at the top of the charts. It's easy to see why the first weeks after pub date are the most critical.

In nonfiction, 11 books made it to the top of the charts during 1999, three less than in the two prior years. The only book to enjoy a double-digit first place tenure was Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation; it led the charts 17 times. The second-best nonfiction performer was Frank McCourt's 'Tis, with eight weeks in the lead spot. Nice, yes, but not nearly as impressive as McCourt's first book, Angela's Ashes, which made it to the top spot 17 times in the course of 1997. Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie was in the top spot seven times last year and never went below the top third of the nonfiction list -- a remarkable feat for a book that is coming up on week #112 on PW's charts.

In mass market, 12 books enjoyed a run in the lead spot and again only one -- Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution -- made it to double digits, with 14 weeks in the #1 perch. Just as remarkable is that the Avon book is beginning its fourth year on the national charts. Another strong paper performer was Judy Blume's Summer Sisters, with eight weeks in the lead -- two more than the next best performer, John Grisham's The Street Lawyer. Stephen King's The Green Mile was #1 the last week of 1999 and had a run of seven weeks. Back in 1996, the serial novel's six installments had a combined total of 22 weeks in the #1 slot.

In trade paper, 11 books had runs of one to 19 weeks at the top of the charts, but only two had a tenure of more than a month. The best performance was by Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife, with 19 weeks, followed by Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, with six weeks on the list. In the course of the year, there were eight Oprah book club picks on the weekly trade charts, including Pilot. These books dominated the lead spot -- 30 times last year.

First fiction had a better year in 1999; four fiction debuts made it onto the weekly charts, including two -- White Oleander by Janet Fitch and Mother of Pearl by Melinda Haynes -- that were chosen by Oprah as book club picks. Both books had double-digit runs on the weekly charts, of 19 and 14 weeks,respectively. Another debut novel, Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout benefited by stellar reviews., One of 1998's bestselling debut novels, Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, inspired several clones but only one that scored big -- The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, a collection of interlinked stories by Melissa Bank.

It will be interesting to see if the players and authors whose names have been so familiar in the '90s will continue to dominate these charts. E-commerce, e-books and e-promotions will all play a greater role in the new century. Will these open the doors for more publishers and writers, or will the winning combination remain the same: one of the big five firms publishing a book by a veteran writer that is touted by Oprah? We have no answer yet.

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