Random House founder Bennett Cerf was reportedly asked how to write a best seller. The venerable editor's answer: Lincoln's Doctor's Dog. Seems Abe Lincoln, health and dogs are three of the most popular subjects in literary publishing. Think A Team of Rivals, YOU: The Owner's Manual and Marley & Me. Then, there are those best selling authors like Dan Brown whose continuing education courses on symbology show up on Amazon's best seller list weeks before their pub date. And, you've no-doubt heard, Sarah Palin's memoir, due Nov. 17th, is already #1 on Barnes & Noble's list.
So, what does make a best seller? asks Peter Conn, University of Pennsylvania English professor and creator of the illuminating Teaching Company course, Great American Best Sellers, The Books That Shaped America. While there is no one formula for success, the history of bestsellers does suggest a few patterns according to Conn. Certain genres always sell well. Conn's course includes mysteries -- The Maltese Falcon, 1930; westerns -- The Virginian, which was the first of its genre, 1902; historical romance -- Gone With the Wind, 1936; stories of upward mobility -- Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick, 1868; adventures -- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884; and thrillers, as in just about anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy or James Patterson.
The 24 books in Conn's stimulating survey do have one thing common -- they're tremendously readable. But satisfying writing doesn't guarantee longevity, he tells HuffPost. Anyone still reading Hervey Allen's 1,224 page Anthony Adverse, from 1933? But then there's James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 hit, The Last of the Mohicans, still going strong in print and on film. Cooper, it seems, didn't have to write for a living -- being one of the Coopers of Cooperstown, N.Y. He took up writing to win a bet with his wife that he could write a book as good as the imports coming from England. It became America's first bestselling novel.
These kind of savory moments are woven throughout Conn's narrative and give the books their emotional Velcro as Conn surrounds each title with political-social context of the times, other contemporaneous books and pertinent author bio-bits. Horatio Alger, for instance, author of the post-civil war rages-to-respectability hit, Ragged Dick, was fired from his Unitarian pulpit in Massachusetts for sexually molesting boys in his congregation. Yikes.
The professor's list of 24 is very subjective. Given the constraints of The Teaching Company's lecture time and Conn's own predilections, some viewers/listeners are bound to take umbrage at what's NOT included. You won't find any science fiction or horror titles. Dale Carnegie's 1936 How to Win Friends and Influence People is well ventilated but Benjamin Spock's 1946 Babies and Child Care, which defined childcare for several generations, is not mentioned. Joseph Heller's World War II hit, Catch-22 is here, Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead is not.
(SEE ENTIRE LIST BELOW)
Mystery is Conn's favorite genre so fans of The Maltese Falcon will find comfort in exploring Dashiell Hammett, the book-to-film classic and the whole mystery genus. In biography, Conn tells us David McCulloch single-handedly resurrected John Adams in 2007 to his place among the leading figures of the early American republic. In the literary space, Harper Lee's 1960 hit, To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize, was translated into more than 40 languages and sold tens of millions of copies worldwide and, coincidentally, was voted "the greatest novel of all time" in a recent poll taken by The London Telegraph.
Best selling authors give the reader what they're looking for, Conn says. Dependability. He's a big fan of Agatha Christie but calls her plots the "...worst in the whole sleuth genre. We don't turn to Christie for plot," he argues. "We go for the atmosphere, for the repetitive characters like Poirot and Marple. You know what you're getting and it's comforting."
The bestseller game has been quite dramatically transformed in the last two decades, he says. Today, we have franchise writers, like Patterson, Danielle Steel, and Stephen King, whose success is nearly guaranteed based on their brand names alone.
It's also about scale. Big-box stores, Internet commerce, and the rise of the mega publishers have altered the way books are marketed and sold. Currently, five publishers essentially put out 80 percent of all books on the English language bestsellers lists -- Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin USA and Simon & Schuster. "These companies have the know-how, the ad budgets, and the global reach that now drive and define the book business. In the next decade, or so," he predicts, "we'll be down to one publisher."
Finally, there's the continuing-education angle to many bestsellers today. We, readers, devour fiction that shovels large buckets of facts at us. It may be mere escapist entertainment but we get extra value credit for ingesting Tom Clancy's military hardware descriptions, Patricia Cornwell's forensic lessons and Michael Crichton's dinosaur curriculum. Dan Brown's current uber-hit, The Lost Symbol, is on a creative level with National Treasure 3, but you do get a complete course in the history and ethos of tattoos. And you get a bonus dissertation on the origins of the neck-tie which, the fictitious Harvard professor, Robert Langdon, teaches us, "...derived from a ruthless band of Croat mercenaries who donned knotted necker-chiefs before they stormed into battle." And that's just in the first two chapters of the 528 page lesson plan -- before we even get to the Masonic secrets.
Not quite The Bay Psalm Book.
Peter Conn's 24 BOOKS -- 30 minute lectures each
Recent best sellers, John Adams, The Woman Warrior, Catch 22, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Native Son, The Grapes of Wrath, How to Win Friends & Influence People, Gone with the Wind, The Good Earth, The Maltese Falcon, Main Street, The Jungle, The House of Mirth, The Virginian, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, Ragged Dick, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Last of the Mohicans, Common Sense, The Bay Psalm Book.