Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Readers in a Rut

Sandra Parshall

“I stopped enjoying her books years ago, but I still buy them and read them.”

“His last half-dozen books have been poorly written and boring – but I can’t seem to stop myself from buying them, even though I know I’m going to hate them.”

How many times have you heard people say this sort of thing? How many times have you seen similar statements posted on DorothyL? How many times have you admitted to buying books by authors you should have given up on years ago?

I’m trying to understand why readers buy, and read, then complain about books they know in advance they won’t like. Do they have such ecstatic memo
ries of an author’s first few good books that they keep hoping she or he will suddenly start writing well again when all the evidence points to a permanent decline? Any author can be forgiven one weak book – no one is consistently brilliant, after all – but I have so little time to read that a writer who disappoints me repeatedly has to do something spectacular to win me back. I feel very much alone in taking this hard line, though.

If you doubt that American readers are creatures of habit, just take a look at last year’s overall bestsellers list, as reported in a recent issue of Publishers Weekly. Among the top six books of the year – those that sold more than a million copies each – is only one by a new author: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, which came in second with 1.3 million copies sold even though it wasn’t published until Septem
ber of 2008. The other books at the top are (1) The Appeal by John Grisham, (3) The Host by Stephanie Meyer, which is still near the top of the bestseller lists after 48 weeks, (4) Cross Country by James Patterson, (5) The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks, and (6) Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich.

Moving down the list, to books that sold more than 600,000 but fewer than a million copies last year, we find (7) Christmas Sweater, a first novel by conservative media personality Glenn Beck, who was already a known quantity because of his books of opinion on social issues; (8) Scarpetta by Patrici
a Cornwell; (9) Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz; (10) Plum Lucky by (again) Janet Evanovich; (11) 7th Heaven by (again) James Patterson; (12) Sail by (again!) James Patterson; (13) A Good Woman by Danielle Steele; (14) Divine Justice by David Baldacci; and (15) The Gate House by Nelson DeMille.

One new writer in the entire lot -- and Wroblewski was blessed with Oprah’s imprimatur, which drove sales of Edgar Sawtelle.

A total of 155 novels sold more than 100,000 hardcover copies each last year. Of those, four were by James Patterson, three by Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, four by Iris Johansen, three by Danielle Steele. The following authors all had two bestselling hardcovers each in 2008: Janet Evanovich, Patricia Cornwell, Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark (they co-authored one book), Dean Koontz, David Baldacci, Laurell K. Hamilton, Jonathan Kellerman, Stephen King, John Sandford, Clive Cussler, Debbie Macomber, Stuart Woods, Robert Parker, Jeffery Deaver, and Jack Higgins. Twenty-one authors wrote 47 of the 155 novels that sold more than 100,000 copies.

In paperback, these same authors sold even more copies of more novels, some of them reprints of books originally published years ago. Roberts/Robb had the most paperback bestsellers in 2008 – nine in mass market pb and six in trade pb. James Patterson had a total of nine.

Almost all of the other books on both hardcover and paperback lists were written by long-established authors.

I’m not saying these people produce bad books, or that their fans are automatons who buy blindly even when they don’t anticipate enjoying the novels they purchase.
All of the top-selling writers have legions of devoted fans who love every word they write. I realize that the millions of books they sell are helping their publishers stay in business. But the sameness of the names at the top of the bestsellers list, year after year after year, does suggest that many readers lack a sense of adventure and would rather buy a book with a familiar name on it, whether it’s a good book or not, than try something new. Publishers know that, and count on it when they put out multiple books by the same writers each year.

In addition to Wroblewksi, one other newcomer stood out last year: Brunonia Barry, whose The Lace Reader sold more than 160,000 copies. I refuse to believe that only two new writers published novels last year that were good enough to engage the minds and hearts of a broad range of readers. I think a lot of wonderful books fail to sell in large numbers because the publishers don’t promote them and habit-bound readers are reluctant to spend money on books by writers with unfamiliar names. Yet those same readers will automatically buy a familiar writer’s book – even when they expect it to disappoint them.

Will somebody please explain this quirk of human nature to me? I am sincerely baffled.

Do you buy books by writers you no longer enjoy? Why do you do it? What would it take to persuade you to spend your money instead on a new author’s book? Have you discovered any new authors in the last couple of years whose books are now on your automatic-buy list?


Auntie Knickers said...

I probably am not a good person to ask, because I don't buy or even read any of the folks listed. Used to read J. Kellerman, after one disappointing book gave up. Also don't buy as many books as I would like, being retired without a pension as yet. But I will try hard to get my hands on Peter Robinson, Stephen Booth, Sharon Wildwind, Robert Fate, Vicki Lane, Jacqueline Winspear, Harley Jane Kozak, Cornelia Read, Deborah Grabien, Phil Rickman and quite a few others. That's why I love DorothyL because I first heard of most of these there.

catie said...

If an (established) author disappoints me more than once, they are off my automatic buy list. (I will give them one last chance however, if there is a general consensus that a new release has recapture the fire). I am CONSTANTLY trying and buying new authors; but like Auntie Knickers, maybe it's best not to use me as a litmus test.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm glad you mentioned Stephen Booth, because it gives me a chance to report the sad news that his new book will NOT be published in the US. (Steve wrote about this in his last newsletter to fans.) I guess his American publisher didn't feel past sales justified continuing his contract. But his books can still be purchased in Canada, which means you can order them through

All the writers you listed as favorites are well worth reading. Wouldn't it be great if one of them (or all of them!) caught Oprah's attention?

Sobaka said...

I used to love Martha Grimes, and would automatically buy her new books in hardcover. The Blue Last, however, made me regret the $25 I spent, and from then on I checked reviews before buying, and more often than not borrowed her new books from the library instead of buying. Grimes is an author who seems to me to have decided to branch off in a new direction that just doesn't work. I feel the same about Patricia Cornwell; it doesn't even seem as if her recent books are written by the same person as her older ones.

Books are expensive. If I feel I've wasted my $25 just one time, I'll be very cautious in the future, even if I've loved the author for years. But, it takes a lot for me to completely abandon an author. I've completely given up on Cornwell, but I still risk "wasting" my time on every new Grimes; I keep hoping, and she keeps enough of the old quality to keep me in my reading rut.

Pen N. Hand said...

Several names have been mentioned in the comments of authors whose books I don't purchase anymore. Two duds and I'm gone, looking for someone with a fresh outlook.
Why the public keeps buying stale books by established authors is a question I've never been able to answer. You ask the hard questions.

Sandra Parshall said...

A couple of authors have never disappointed me: Thomas H. Cook and Ruth Rendell. I feel confident buying their books. The Rendell books I love, though, are her stand-alone suspense novels. The Inspector Wexford books began to bore me long ago, so although I will listen to them on recordings from the library, I don't buy them.

If a writer has a terrific first novel and a so-so second one, I'll give him or her another chance (or two). I know what it's like to spend years polishing a first novel before selling it, then have to rush to complete the second one and meet a deadline. I think it takes some new writers three books to hit their stride. I've seen this happen often enough to know it's a reliable pattern.

Feeding the Grey Cells said...

I would say that although one of the luxuries I allow myself on our ever shrinking budget is books and Hardcovers are my perfered binding I won't spend money on an author that no longer appeals to me.

I DO try new authors (usually in paperback since there is a bit of risk there).

Nice article - thanks.

caryn said...

I'm also probably not a "typical" book buyer since the number of books I buy is WAY WAY down due to economic fears and also a lack of space (in fact, our household is now trying to shed books but that's another topic). But I'll chime in anyway.
I don't think the majority of people keep blindly buying books that disappoint them. I think people buy what they are familiar with and the mentioned authors' books are everywhere. Betsy bookbuyer can pick up any of those authors many many places besides a bookstore-grocery store, drug store etc etc. And there are a ton of titles to pick from so if they've read one or two books by the author then that author is a "safe" and convenient buy-even if it's basically the same story told over and over. When I've stated why I have stopped reading Stephanie Plum books-not that I didn't like Stephanie, but that I felt that the books were all the same basic book, tons of people have said that is what they LIKE about the books. I can see that in a way. It's EXACTLY why our family liked the James Bond movies-and why we didn't like the last couple quite as much (the gadgets are gone!!!)
I think most readers of fiction are casual readers. They walk into the library or store and look for the familiar or something similar. They don't necessarily want to take the time to sort through shelves and shelve of unknowns to find a gem-or be disappointed with a dud. Our library has started a "If you like (big name author) then why not give (lesser known author) a try?" campaign. So far it's been wildly successful.
On the Booth tangent-I'm very disappointed to hear this. One of my cutbacks has been eliminating book buying from Canada because the shipping. I might have to make an exception.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Caryn about the safe and convenient purchases. I also think that the "political campaign sign" motivation is there: if people see a name often enough in other people's yards or stores, they feel confident that it's a safe choice, a recommendation from the public.

I stopped buying Cornwell and Evanovich. Now I carry my Sisters in Crime book list to stores and try new names from it. It has opened up a whole new universe. I recommend it.
Llyn K.

Mare Fairchild said...

I don't buy books by authors I no longer enjoy. I will give a one or two book grace, but if the characters bore or annoy me I just don't read it, let alone buy it. I listen to the chatting in my groups and sally forth list in hand. I personally love to find new authors as I tend to stress when I don't have several piles of books unread.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Auntie Knickers. You've put me in some terrific company.

As a writer, I shouldn't admit this, but I don't buy books first off. I get them from the library, and then buy the ones that really impress me. I'm in the school of hoping for another terrific book, even in the face of evidence of permanent decline.

One of the things I do is pick 2 or 3 authors per year and read them straight through, every book in the series, no matter how good, bad, or indifferent. I try to figure out how a person's writing style matured, or is some sad cases, declined.

SandyT said...

I'm on and there are a lot of books mentioned that are not written by the "same old same old." Ever since the 20 big publishers were reduced to 6 conglomerates who look only to the bottom line, marketing dollars seem to be pumped only into the campaigns of writers they consider to be the "safe bet." Word of mouth can only go so far unless it's from the lips of Oprah. Even then she had discontinued her book club at one point earlier because some of the books sucketh big time and sales dwindled. Now she has revived it. I don't read her picks because those aren't the types of books I like to read. Stephen King was one of my favorites but he lost me after Gerald's Game. I stopped the Plum series after #11. Stephen Booth, Ken Bruen, Carol O'Connell, Peter James, Mark Schweizer, and many others not on the "top ten" list are just a few of the favorites of mine.

Cathy said...

I used to buy several books ahead on series I enjoyed, but no longer. I was cleaning the house in preparation for family arriving from England, and I was determined to get all my TBR books on the designated TBR shelves. As I went through them all, I realized that several were series books that I'd lost interest in--and not because they were poorly written or just plain bad. I simply wasn't interested in continuing the series when looking at all the others I'd started since purchasing those. Now I only get one book ahead, which allows for lackluster writing or waning interest.

Paul Lamb said...

Alvaro Mutis. Anything of his that gets translated to English, I'm all over it. Philip Roth never lets me down, even though he's less rollicking than he was some years ago.

This is one reason I like to read anthologies. I get exposed to a lot of new writers, and some of them intrigue me enough to try a little further. Still, I'd probably do like Sharon said and get them from the library before I invested my money in them. And most of the hardbacks I buy now are destined for the small-town library I try to support, so I've gotten choosy.

Dave Chaudoir said...

I just read "Your Heart Belongs to Me" by Dean Koontz and found it extremely disappointing, and this is the second time in recent memory, so no more of that. I find better stories and certainly better mysteries in many of the Berkley Prime Crime paperback originals, or any of the publishers' paperback originals series. They are not only affordable but often well-done, interesting and just what I like in a mystery.

Chester Campbell said...

You've prompted a great discussion, Sandy. I have dropped several of the series you referred to. I slowed down on Robert B. Parker a few years ago, but I pick up a fairly recent paperback now and then if for no other reason than I enjoy his writing style. It's particularly discouraging to us small press authors who enjoy a modicum of critical success but don't attract the necessary buzz. People who go looking for big names would not likely pull out our books if they were on the shelf. My blog book tour (including yesterday's post on Poe's Deadly Daughters) is an attempt to generate some buzz, but it's an uphill battle. Thanks for pushing readers to broaden their horizons.

L.J. Sellers said...

I don't even finish a book that disappoints me. Life is short and there are thousands of books I'd like to read. But as a writer, I'm more familiar with new authors than perhaps the general public is. As hardbacks get more expensive and readers get more information online, I hope to see this trend (of buying only familiar big name authors) decline.

Anonymous said...

I've become leery of books by Famous Author + Writer I never heard of. Several of those books are pretty bad.

I read Sail and if they covered up the name of the author it wouldn't have sold.

I don't read any of the Evanovich books unless they're from the Stephanie Plum series. I'm not sure why I do that.

Sometimes I just like the way an author writes. Sometimes I like the stories.

I read a lot and try a lot of new authors. It's fun discovering an unknown then following their rise or their fall.

Jessica said...

I never buy hardcovers, but if I did, it would be a name I trusted to give me a good story.
Paperbacks are different. If it's only seven or eight dollars, I'll try a new author. For the most part, big name authors are at the library and that's where I'll get their books. :-) I do like to buy debut author books, though. Kind of a sowing and reaping type thing. LOL