Nina Siegal has gone through the Publishers Weekly bestseller list since 1900 (I didn't realize PW kept stats this long) and attempted to correlate sales with literary quality and longevity. The results are as follows:
The period we might call the “Golden Age” of bestseller fiction came in mid-century. As I got into the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I was surprised to find myself highlighting not one or two recognizable titles every couple of years, but three or four sometimes in a single year. In 1961, for example, Americans were reading, or at least buying, The Agony and the Ecstacy (#1), Franny and Zooey (#2), To Kill A Mockingbird (#3), Tropic of Cancer (#6) and Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (#10). That’s a pretty high-brow reading list compared to 1994, when three of the top ten bestsellers (#4, #7, and #8) were by Danielle Steele, and others were John Grisham (#1), Tom Clancy (#2), James Redfield (#3), Stephen King (#5) and Michael Crichton (#10). . . .
The bestseller in fiction took a precipitous turn in the 1980s towards what might be termed the “throwaway read,” a novel with a shelf life of yogurt. Interestingly, that doesn’t seem to be quite as true with nonfiction bestsellers. America’s nonfiction bestseller lists still have some pretty hefty titles. This week, for example, the nonfiction bestseller list included Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, both complicated and voluminous works.
Trying to read the bestseller lists as a crystal ball is always going to be a bit of a crapshoot, but it's hard to look at what Siegal finds here and not see some kind of trend toward less good books dominating the bestseller lists more and more post-1970.
This is obviously a huge subject open to lots of influences, but the first thing that came to mind when I saw Siegal's picking 1980 as a pivotal year was that this was right about when corporatization really took over publishing. Of course that still leaves open the question of if the general U.S. culture was driving changing values in the publishing biz or vice versa, but there does seem to be a real change starting right around 1980.
There's also the question of what bestsellers actually represent. That is, widespread developments over the past 40 years have changed the way books become bestsellers; a big-name literary prize like the Pulitzer might have been enough to ensure sales 40 years ago, but now sales are driven in different ways. That is, what works at Costco is going to be different from what worked as an equivalent mass market phenomenon 40 years ago.
Caveats aside, Siegal has pulled together some interesting information for people who like to agonize over this sort of thing.
I would say that The Late Age of Print would be a huge help for people trying to figure out how the business side of publishing worked to change any correlation between quality and sales. In discussing Siegal's findings, Andrew Seal points out Making the List by Michael Korda as another useful book in understanding what the bestseller list tells us:
There are sources which answer, to a limited extent, some of these questions, and I'm reading one of them now. Michael Korda, an author and publisher, wrote Making the List in 2001 (which I excerpted a little from yesterday), and it has some nice, very double-spaced commentaries on each decade of bestseller lists, starting from 1900-1909. Mostly, he just points to a few titles from each year which left a slightly less delible mark on the American cultural scene. But he also offers a few notable developments in the history of publishing, such as the marketing of the first crossword puzzle book, which was the first "non-book," or book not meant to be read, to be sold in actual bookstores. These kind of moments I'll try to summarize in a later post, as well as a few broader-scope meditations (like the excerpt posted yesterday) which Korda offers on historical trends or consistencies he has seen over the years. Korda also mentions a couple of other titles of similar subject, and I'll try to track those down and summarize them as well.