Bestsellers as Indicators of Literature “Quality”

Popular culture is the culture created according to the themes that interest large masses of public. Its contents are determined by the requirements and predilections of the society. Popular culture is usually manifested in such areas as music, mass media, painting, literature, etc. Best sellers, the subject matter of our analysis, are obvious manifestations of popular culture.

The term bestseller evidently means nothing more than “best selling”. A product, be it a book, computer game, music album or anything else, can be considered a bestseller if it is in one of the first three places on the list of sales of other products in a particular area. Let us focus on particularly best selling books. For a book to appear on the bestsellers list, it should be best selling not only in printed form, but on online platforms as well. Moreover, abroad, especially in the USA, England, Canada, on its way to becoming a bestseller, a book should be well-demanded in libraries as well. Based on the overall index of the above-mentioned platforms, these countries publish their lists of bestsellers. These lists are published by various weeklies, magazines and newspapers. For example, in the USA such popular newspapers as Publishers Weekly, USA Today, New York Times and Washington Post have their own bestsellers page. Interestingly, the authors of the best selling books in the first three places on the sales list can also be given the title of “bestseller authors”. It is noteworthy that all the trilingual (ArmenianRussian and English) articles in the Wikipedia information portal say that, “Books of superior academic value or literary merit tend not to be bestsellers. Lists simply give the highest-selling titles in the category over the stated period. Blockbusters for films and chart-toppers  (hits) in recorded music are similar terms”. As we have already mentioned, the bestsellers lists are published on the basis of a certain period of time. Hence, these lists represent not only positions based on sales, but also demonstrate the demand of a certain book, the author’s popularity and readers’ preference for a specific genre over the other ones. Nonetheless, bestsellers are perceived in a wrong way by the society. And in general, this phenomenon violates the folk wisdom which states that “quantity does not always indicate quality”. The sales numbers themselves can affect the readers’ psychology. Everybody will be asking themselves the same question: if this book is being sold so much, maybe it is really worth appearing in the leading positions. Such a way of thinking is subjective and at the same time, justified. The psychological factor of an individual being part of the society is also actual here. More often, trying to keep up with the trends of the time, book lovers may fall into the bestseller-called swamp where material interests become opposed to literary and artistic quality, dime erotic stories replace high ideas, interesting plots become replaced by primitive movie script-like ones and so on. Books become bestsellers not based on their artistic merit more often nowadays. Quality always makes its way to glory: this fact has been proved by all literary studies and the history of the world’s literature in general. But nowadays we are witnessing the distortion of this historical truth. Besides the author, various literary agents, editors, reviewers, PR and marketing specialists, etc. do their best to make a book famous and demanded. It is undeniable that authors write books mostly for material profits, but sometimes this goal becomes so dominant that some authors spend much more time and resources on advertising their still unwritten books than on the effectiveness and quality of their work. It is not for nothing that literary critics are so acute in their positions and so drastic in expressing their views. Today, at the level of world literature, all literary critics from all countries agree on the point that large numbers of sales will not guarantee long lives for books: eventually they will become part of furniture, nothing more. (Nevertheless, it would be fair enough to say that not all bestsellers are of poor quality. A part of them is really worth living within literature, but our major task is to indicate the kind of policy which will make even the worst book a bestseller.)

The fact that contemporary authors write their books following certain “literary policies” is noteworthy. More often, they study certain target groups before writing their works and the interests of those groups later become emphasized in their books. It is natural that this phenomenon could not be overlooked by literary critics. For example, the trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James, the sales leader for several weeks in the UK and USA, is often roughly but felicitously called “pornography for housewives”. This definition already indicates the target group of the book, not to mention the unique erotic nature of the book and possibility of becoming targets of the individuals having that kind of erotic “taste”. Interestingly, nearly all the people who offer such poor-quality products to the society, justify themselves by stating that there is a huge demand for such products. However, a large sales number of such bestsellers can bring about genre “contagions” which became evident after the first book of the above-mentioned trilogy was published. It was followed by some disgraceful imitations which continue to maintain their positions on the market ( “The Haven of Obedience”, “Forbidden Desires” and “Dark Secrets” by Marina Anderson, “Diary of a Submissive” by Sophie Morgan, “Color of Pain” series of novels by Eva Hansen ( 6 books have been published so far: “Color of Pain – Red”, “Color of Pain – Black”, “Color of Pain – White”, “Color of Pain – Velvet”, “Color of Pain – Silk”, “Color of Pain – Latex” ) and so on). Were not they mere imitations of the trilogy by Erica James, we might have nothing against them.

The “literary policy” of authors includes the simplicity of style as well. Even the deep and profound issues are touched superficially in modern bestsellers, thus allowing to avoid the cruel and hard process of cleaning the mental rust. It is no secret that the literature of past centuries is distinguished by being full of ideas, in-depth examinations, finest psychological explanations which attract the reader. Yet, the century changed and people’s perceptions, views and positions on intellectual literature changed as well. Plots have been simplified, authors deliberately avoid fine psychological examinations, refrain from the tendency of discussing global issues that was well established in past centuries. All this is done for a specific purpose and it is not to pull reading out of its paralyzed state. No, this is all done for making as much profit as possible in easiest ways. Such books often become bestsellers dictating a new quality and a new word on the way of development of literature.

So, there are certain criteria for a book to become a bestseller, some of which are: 1) the subject matter should be demanded, 2) the writing quality should be above average, 3) the language should be simple and, of course, 4) there should be an own trump card which makesthe book different from the others of the same ge nre.

As we have already mentioned, bestsellers are profitable. To substantiate what we have said, let us present the amount of profits gained by some books that became bestsellers in the 21 st century (by presenting these numbers, we do not mean to discredit all the books listed bellow, some of them really deserve to be called bestsellers):

  1. “Harry Potter”, series of novels (7 books) by Joanne Rowling; the first book of the series alone, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” has sold more than 450 million copies, and all the 7 books together have brought nearly 13 billion dollars’ profit to the author.
  2. “50 Shades of Grey”, trilogy by E. L. James; announced in 2012 that the sales of the first ebook of the trilogy exceeded those of the “Harry Potter” series. The author refuses to mention certain figures about her profit, but everything becomes clear when we compare the figures to those of “Harry Potter”.
  3. “Twilight”, series of novels by Stephenie Meyer, has sold nearly 120 million copies. It is only mentioned that the royalty the author received for the first book amounted to 750.000 dollars. But it can be deduced from the first book’s success that the amount of royalty has also increased along with the great increase in sales. Moreover, according to the Forbes in 2011, Meyer is the 5 th among the best selling authors worldwide.
  4. “The Da Vinci Code”, novel by Dan Brown. Being the continuation of his other book, “Angels and Demons”, it has had more success than the first one, selling about 81 million copies.
  5. “Hunger Games”, trilogy by Suzanne Collins. To get an idea about the sales numbers of the books, it is enough to mention that the first two books have topped bestsellers’ lists for about two years.

Interestingly, the New York Times magazine has created the special bestseller-section “Children’s Books” for the books for children and youth. This was caused by the “Harry Potter” series of novels as it topped bestsellers’ lists for a year after it was published. By creating the special section, the magazine tried to avoid the monopoly created by those books.

However, the profitability of bestsellers is not limited to the sales of the book. As a book’s sales number is pretty good, most popular film-making companies just do their best to get a copyright for shooting a film based on the book. Since the 2000s, there has been no bestseller based on which there has not been made a film or TV series. The authors as well get pretty much royalties for this (e.g. a film or series of films have been shot based on all the above-mentioned books). This is another fact proving that writing a bestseller is much more a matter of quantity and profit, rather than of quality.

Bestsellers are classified into several groups. Perhaps, the biggest classification is between fantasy and non-fiction (scientific, biographic, etc.) genres. We have already mentioned above that the New York Times has created its separate youth section. Bestsellers are also distinguished according to their covers. It is no wonder that the cover also influences the sales numbers. First, here also literary agents and PR specialists conduct certain literary policies. For a book to attract the reader from the first sight, it needs to have a maximal “attractive” cover. This allows to advertise the book and make it pleasant for people, thus greatly stimulating its sales. On the other hand, bestsellers fall into two groups according to their cover: paperbacks and hardbacks. As a rule, hardbacks are published first and are more expensive. If they come up to sales numbers expectations, paperback versions are then published through a year. They are much cheaper and more available to large masses of public.

Hence, we can see that nowadays it is the sequence of subtle political steps that makes a book a bestseller, meanwhile the importance of its artistic value becomes secondary. Yet, this is not always the case for all bestsellers. Even nowadays there are written books that can live for centuries, but no one is able to judge whether a book will have a future life or not. In this respect, time has been and still remains the only judge.

Bestsellers in Armenian

In the recent years, in Armenia as well Armenpress publicizes weekly the list of top 10 bestsellers. Certainly, we cannot talk about millions or even thousands of sold copies in the Armenian reality. Here, even 10-50 sold copies are enough for a book to appear on bestsellers lists. In order to compile the list of “Yerevan Bestsellers”, Armenpress cooperates with the seven major bookstores in Yerevan: “New Book”, “Noah’s Ark”, “Armenian Book”, “Bureaucrat”, “Bookinist”, “Art Bridge” and “Zangak”. Lists do not include professional or informative books, aka the books that are known as non-fiction bestsellers abroad.

As of 10.06.2016, “Letter to Turkish Writer” by Levon Ananyan tops the Yerevan Bestsellers list with 17 sold copies. Next places are accordingly occupied by Gurgen Yeghiazaryan (“Wolf’s Loop Operation”, 14), Jean-Paul Sartre (“Nausea”, 8), Khaled Hosseini (“And the Mountains Reacted”, 7), Mario Vargas Llosa (“Captain Pantoja and the Special Service”, 7), Spencer Johnson (“Who Moved My Cheese”, 7), John Green (“The Fault in Our Stars”, 6), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“Love in the Tme of Cholera”, 6), Mark Aren (“Where Wild Roses Bloom”, 6) and Paulo Coelho (“The Alchemist”, 6).

The approach of Armenian translators to bestsellers is interesting. As largely sold books abroad interest the Armenian booklovers as well, they are translated into Armenian. If we leave aside profitability, this is also something to be encouraged. In this way, the Armenian young people who do not read original books or, at least, their Russian translations, are given the opportunity to read them in their mother tongue. In this regard, we can mention the translations of some international bestsellers, such as “Inferno” by Dan Brown, “The Fault In Our Stars” by John Green, “The Alchemist” and “Eleven Minutes” by Paulo Coelho, “Grand” by Janusz Wisniewski, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by Joanne Rowling (it is planned to translate and publish the other books as well) and so on.

Author: Arman Veranyan: © All rights are reserved.

Translator: Yeranuhi Antonyan