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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Making the List

Michael Korda

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To purchase Making the List

Title: Making the List
Author: Michael Korda
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 244 pages
Availability: Making the List - US
Making the List - UK
Making the List - Canada
  • A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999
  • as seen through the annual bestseller lists of Publishers Weekly

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Our Assessment:

C : vaguely interesting compilation, but far too little done with it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 10/1/2002 Kim Campbell
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/12/2001 David D. Kirkpatrick
Wall St. Journal . 20/12/2001 Elizabeth Bukowski

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n entertaining tour through the annual best-seller lists of the last century, presenting them like snapshots in an album tracing the history of both book publishing and American culture." - David D. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Making the List offers an overview of the annual bestseller lists for books in the United States in the 20th century.
       Sort of.

       There are a variety of book-bestseller lists -- most famously, in the US, perhaps that of The New York Times. Korda's book, is, as a hidden sub-sub-title indicates: as seen through the annual bestseller lists of Publishers Weekly (though in fact it begins with The Bookman's bestseller list, becoming PW's only in 1912). The PW list, Korda notes, "has long been regarded by some as more accurate than the Times" -- and it does have the additional advantage of being the older list. It is, likely, the best list to focus on for such a broad survey, but it is not ideal.
       There are numerous problems with whatever list one uses. Korda, however, chooses not to dwell too much on the shortcomings of various bestseller lists -- and largely ignores those he does make readers aware of. Most significant is the fact that he considers only hardcover books -- acceptable for much of the early part of the century but highly problematic once the age of the mass-market paperback arrives. Korda admits that mass-market paperback sales of certain titles often far outstripped sales of the bestselling hardcover works in some years, but doesn't concern himself with what that might mean. (He admits that "from the 1940s on, we are only getting part of the story", and is satisfied with leaving it at that.)
       Korda likes the idea of the bestseller list as a reflection of what society is reading (or at least buying), and more generally of American society itself. Ignoring paperback sales -- especially if those titles reach a larger audience than the hardcover bestsellers -- obviously completely skews the picture, offering only a reflection of a much smaller segment of society. (Another similar problem with bestseller lists in general is that they do not take into account library-borrowings (or used book sales) -- making for an often significant readership for a book).

       Korda begins the book with a chatty introduction, in which he doesn't fail to mention that he has both edited and written bestselling tomes. He gives a vague introduction to the bestseller-list phenomenon, and suggests that it offers an interesting picture of the country:

     The bestseller list, in fact, presents us with a kind of corrective reality. It tells us what we're actually reading (or, at least, what we're actually buying) as opposed to what we think we ought to be reading, or would like other people to believe we're buying. Like stepping on the scales, it tells us the truth, however unflattering, and is therefore, taken over the long haul, a pretty good way of assessing our culture and judging how, if any, we have changed.
       The use of the inclusive first-person plural weakens this claim: bestseller lists do not tell us at the complete review what we at the complete review are reading. Ever. And we assume the same goes for most readers. The "we" he means is, of course, the empty concept of 'the country as a whole': we suggest that "we" is not the personal pronoun to use here.
       Unfortunately, bestseller lists also don't tell "the truth" Korda claims -- at least the one he uses don't, being limited to hardcover titles (as well as relying on a methodology that can't guarantee particularly accurate results). The PW list apparently gives a fairly accurate picture of the bestselling books (in hardcover, in this case), but note, however, that Amazon.com's list (admittedly taking into account only the much smaller pool of book-purchasers with Internet access as well as a willingness to purchase books via the Internet) is a very different one. Similarly, The New York Times' list also often differs from PW's markedly. (The New York Times' list -- though the most influential one -- is one that clearly does not reflect the actual state of book-sales, ignoring, for example, religious works (including some phenomenally popular religious fiction) as well re-issued works.) With the implementation of BookScan a truly accurate picture of book-sales may eventually be available, but for now there is still a lot extrapolation, guesswork, and often outright manipulation involved in almost all bestseller lists. Truth remains approximate.
       After his introduction Korda goes through the 20th century decade by decade, offering a brief overview and then printing the bestseller lists for each year. It makes for an interesting compilation, but little more.
       Korda likes to read things into the bestsellers, and this is where things get really messy. Typical is the mention that both Lloyd C. Douglas' The Robe and Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber made the 1944 list:
exemplifying the bipolar sexual mentality of the American reader, which could absorb both a pious religious epic and a bawdy Restoration historical novel at the same time.
       (Korda also notes that The Robe outsold Forever Amber (they were ranked 2nd and 4th respectively on the 1944 fiction list), but then fails to mention that both reappeared on the 1945 list, Forever Amber now in the top spot and The Robe again in second place.)
       A decade later Korda finds:
Nothing better illustrates the curiously bipolar nature of the American reader than the appearance of Grace Metalious and Simone de Beauvoir at the same time.
       Here he at least suggests that "one could argue they were probably read by different people" but he doesn't believe it. No, Korda only sees one lumped-together (and obviously bipolar) "American reader". It must be the publisher in him, that fails to grasp the idea that readers are individuals, not one huge mass.
       Book sales, of all but the biggest bestsellers, are tiny. A million copies sold guarantee a spot on the annual bestseller list -- yet purchasers make up far less than even just one percent of the American population. By comparison, there are several dozen movies each year that reach theatre-audiences in the US of several million, with several topping ten million -- and there are several television programs broadcast every day that reach a larger audience than any bestselling book. Admittedly, sales figures don't tell the whole story for books: they don't include used book sales, or library borrowings, or books borrowed from friends, etc. -- but overall the audience that is reached pales against many other forms of entertainment.
       Perhaps there really is only a small portion of the American population that ever buys books -- i.e. one should look at sales figures in terms of only a few million potential purchasers rather than the population as a whole. Then Korda's "American reader" might have a bit more validity. But (un)fortunately it does not appear that that is an accurate picture of the book buying public.
       Korda needs to generalize -- to find an "American reader" -- in order to make some sense of the lists he presents. He comes up with all sorts of hypotheses why certain books did well. Some are sensible (or self-evident): war books sell during wartime. But with most he just flails around for explanations -- if he offers any at all.
       Even casual perusal of the lists leads to baffling results. How to explain, for example, the appearance of the Latin translation Winnie Ille Pu (of Winnie the Pooh) as the 7th bestselling fiction title in 1961 ? Korda doesn't care -- it doesn't fit his bipolar vision and so he avoids any mention of this book, despite it being one of the most curious titles to appear on any of the bestseller lists. Instead he does go on about 1961 being "a landmark year for fiction", noting that "this is a list of big, ambitious novels (...) suggesting that American readers of both genders had come of age at last." Winnie Ille Pu doesn't fit that conclusion neatly, so he is just glossed over.

       There is fun stuff in Making the List. The bestseller lists are an odd mix of forgettable and classic works, varying in strange cycles over the years. And there are any number of surprises -- of great works that did do as well as one might have hoped they should, for example.
       Korda does offer some interesting insights. He notes how a few authors have come to dominate recent bestseller lists (1997 finds Danielle Steel with 3 (three !) of the top five fiction bestsellers, for example), and how difficult it has become for new authors to break in. He is also keenly aware of how the publishing industry has come to focus on trying to publish blockbusters (rather than trying to actually make money). And he does pay some (though not enough) attention to the issue of marketing, noting (not entirely correctly): "nothing beats a live author when it comes to selling books, and the bestseller list proves that over and over again."

       Bestseller lists are odd things, but they do exert a continuing fascination. We at the complete review are baffled each month anew at our bestseller list of the most popular reviews on our site, never sure quite how much to read into it.
       Making the List does satisfy some of the curiosity readers might have about what books sold well when -- but really, it would have sufficed to print the bestseller-tables and forgo the accompanying text. Korda's insights are limited (and the good ones are all available in his much better publishing memoir, Another Life), and his explanations and claims seem haphazard and unfounded. He writes easily enough, and there are some amusing points and notes, but really, this is very thin stuff.
       :A largely pointless exercise -- which is too bad: bestseller lists deserve closer analysis. But this sure ain't a book providing that.

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Reviews: Bestseller lists: Other books by Michael Korda under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michael Korda was born in 1933. An editor at Simon & Schuster, he has written several books.

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