Not that 2016 was bad; it was fine. Books sales basically held steady — down a little here, up some there — for the most recent period for which we have numbers, from January to July. Although the Assn. of American Publishers wants to crow that books for children and teens were up quite a bit, overall, trade books sales were down 0.4 percent in 2016 from the same period in 2015.
Which isn’t terrible. But it isn’t good, or at least, not good enough.
What publishing needs is one book, one big book, that comes out of nowhere and takes America by storm. You know what I mean: You hear people talking about it in line at the grocery store. Your grandmother asks if you’ve read it the same day your college roommate does. It’s the book you see people reading on subways and on planes, that you hear about on the radio and on TV talk shows, that seems to be everywhere at once.
In 2015, that book was The Girl on the Train. In 2012, it was Gone Girl. Before that came The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively).
Girls, girls, girls!
Indeed, it’s a trend. Once one of these books becomes a mega-hit, publishers look for ways to hitch their wagons to the lead horse. Gillian Flynn certainly wasn’t copying Stieg Larsson’s trilogy with her book Gone Girl — the title was the name of a Johnny Cash album way back in 1978 — but publishers surely noticed. And The Girl on the Train, which, like Gone Girl, features an unreliable female narrator, got a huge marketing push. “I know it should be The Woman on the Train, but it didn’t scan,” author Paula Hawkins (annoyed at the comparison) told the Hollywood Reporter.
The piling-on once a book gets mega-successful may be dismaying from a creative standpoint, but from a business perspective it makes sense: The big hits are impossible to predict.
If I had told you in 1996 that a boy wizard, a girl torn between a vampire and a werewolf, kids fighting to the death in a dystopia, teens with cancer, and a Harvard symbologist would take our best-seller lists by storm, would you have believed me — or called a psychiatrist?
Dan Brown had published three quiet thrillers — including one featuring Robert Langdon — before his second Langdon book, The Da Vinci Code, became the best-selling book of 2004 — and, in 2003 and 2005, the No. 2 best-seller. It spawned not only its own sequels and movies but also shelves and shelves of imitators filled with art and religious conspiracies.
The book that denied Brown the top spot in 2003 was J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Her massively successful Harry Potter series showed publishing that books for kids could lead the industry, re-energizing it with huge sales. But Rowling stopped writing the series in 2007 with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that year’s best-selling book.
By then, her fans were growing into teens with book-buying power. Some turned to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire romance series; some snapped up The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins; many went for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
These books aren’t much like one another. And although Fifty Shades of Grey was, at its very first imaginings, Twilight fan fiction, E.L. James’ erotic novel — 2012’s best-selling book overall — became something entirely new that launched its own fleet of hot-and-heavy followers.
What these breakthrough books share is that they came out of nowhere to top best-seller lists. They each established a meaningful presence in our culture. They told us something, reflected something, or encouraged us to imagine something that was fresh and new.
All the while there were perennial best-selling authors making appearances: Stephen King, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, and James Patterson are regularly among the year’s best-sellers. Jeff Kinney has made a place for himself with his Wimpy Kid children’s series. Occasionally, literary authors such as Jonathan Franzen and Anthony Doerr find a place among the year’s biggest books.
But in 2016, there wasn’t a breakthrough hit of any kind.
It’s not for want of trying — there are thousands of books published each year, with the authors and business people behind them hoping each will resonate with readers, marketers strategizing the best they can. But one of the charms of the publishing industry is that it’s hard to tell what will catch on — in fact, the biggest books are those that come as a surprise.