Genre Fantasy Bestsellers through 1990

I've been studying Keith Justice's Bestseller Index, which compiles information from two separate bestseller lists -- New York Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly -- up through 1990, and the results are ridiculously fascinating.

For instance, you wanna take a stab at which SFF author has the most individual books appear on a bestseller list?

No, it ain't Heinlein, Clark, Herbert, or Asimov. It's not even Terry Brooks or David Eddings. No, the answer is Piers Anthony. And even if you somehow pulled that name out of thin air, I guarantee you'll never guess how truly dominate Anthony was. Up through 1990, Anthony had more than double than number of distinct bestsellers than the next most frequent bestseller, Anne McCaffrey. Whereas Anthony had an astounding 22 different books appear on a bestseller list, McCaffrey had "only" 9.**

Now, caveats. These numbers need to be taken with one (or two) grains of salt. For instance, although Anthony had 22 two distinct books rise to bestseller status, his "most-total-copies-sold" book, A Spell for Chameleon, never actually appeared on a bestseller list. These lists work best at measuring rapid, meteoric rises in sales for books, but long-term, steady sellers rarely make the lists. Along similar lines, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land had over 50 printings but never once made a bestseller list. So, these lists aren't perfect.

Moreover, just because Anthony had 22 titles become bestsellers, that doesn't mean he outsold every other speculative fiction author. Nearly all his titles spent only 1 or 2 months, at most, on the bestseller lists. In contrast, Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara spent nearly a full year on the lists (50 weeks total), and The Silmarillion won the genre fantasy sweepstakes by recording 139 weeks as a bestseller. Tolkien's book sold so well, in fact, that Houghton Mifflin had a record year financially. Its trade division in 1977 increased its sales by 48% over what it achieved in 1976 (Whiteside 126).

However, my Piers Anthony factoid isn't the most interesting thing to emerge from this analysis.

So .... last week at ICFA, I presented on Judy-Lynn and Lester del Rey. Presentation went super well, and one of my arguments was that, rather than "mass market" or "commercial" fantasy, we should start calling the period from 1977-1990 the Del Rey Boom. The reason? They were just that dominant in shaping genre fantasy.

Despite making that claim, though, I honestly and truly had no idea just how dominant they were. Here's how many distinct titles the other SFF publishers had on a bestseller list through 1990:

  • Tor Books2 SF titles (Greely, The God Game, 1987; & Piers Anthony, 1985). Although a dominant force in fantasy now, they were founded in 1981, and needed a while to take off.
  • Baen Books1 SF title (McCaffrey and Moon, Sassinak, 1990), but no fantasy ... like Tor, they were founded late: in this case, 1984.
  • DAW Books: 1 title (Tad Williams, Stone of Farewell, 1990); fantasy this time, but given that they'd been around since 1972 and boasted Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series, that's pretty damning.
  • TSR7 titles. The famous Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms -- after 1990, that's when they really start hitting their stride on bookstore shelves.
  • Ace Books7 titles; three belong to Piers Anthony, and there's one Thieves' World too.
  • Avon Books: 11 titles. Better known for romance, Avon nevertheless published six titles by Piers Anthony, two by Brian Jacques, two by Richard Adams, and one by Michael Crichton.
  • Berkley Books12 titles, but eight are by Frank Herbert, and the other four are novelizations from film and television.
  • Bantam Books: 12 titles. Two Asimov, two Feist, two Weiss and Hickman, plus a scattered few others, including (oddly) a collection of Frank Frazetta's artwork.
Now, guess how many distinct bestsellers Ballantine/Del Rey had. Go on, guess ... I double dog dare you. Whatever you say, though, you're wrong. The answer:
  • Del Rey Books: 65 titles.
I mean .... Jesus. More bestsellers than every other SFF publisher combined? And by twelve? Plus that number would be higher had not Lester del Rey pissed off Piers Anthony in the mid-1980s. Of those 65 Del Rey titles, though, 26 are SF, the rest fantasy. Last week at ICFA, Stephen Donaldson told me that other publishers out of jealousy used to call them "Death Rey Books", and now I can see why. Sixteen different titles from Del Rey Books spent 30 weeks or more on a bestseller list, and from August 1984 through February 1985, they had a new paperback original reach the bestseller list each month. It's almost literally impossible to imagine how good the del Reys were at their jobs.

** Oddly enough, Anthony's miscounts his total best-sellers in his second autobiography -- he says "21" rather than "22" (p. 116), but he means paperback bestsellers; And Eternity (1990) was his first -- and only -- book to ever reach the hardcover bestseller lists. It never reached them in paperback, though.

**More fun facts: Anthony's novel Ogre, Ogre was the first SFF novel to ever make the NYT bestseller list as a paperback original, and McCaffrey's The White Dragon was the first to make the list in hardcover. (In contrast, while The Sword of Shannara was a runaway best-seller, it didn't make the list in hardcover. So maybe a technicality, but it doesn't count as a paperback original.)

  1. Anthony, Piers. How Precious was that While. Tor, 2001.
  2. Justice, Keith L. Bestseller Index: All Books, by Author, on the Lists of Publishers Weekly and the New York Times through 1990. McFarland, 1998.
  3. Whiteside, Thomas. The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates, Show Business, and Book Publishing. Wesleyan UP, 1980.


  1. Interesting pice, Dennis. My memory says that THE SILMARILLION stayed at the top of the NYT list for twenty-one consecutive weeks, but I've not been able to confirm that. Does the book you mentiion contain such information?--John R.

    1. I can't share the jpeg snippet of it, but it was on the Publisher's Weekly hardcover fiction list for 60 weeks total (#1 for 18 of those weeks), the NYT fiction list for 60 weeks total (#1 for 23 weeks), and the paperback version spent another 9 and 10 weeks on PW and NYT, respectively. So 139 weeks combined, although both the PW and NYT lists were running concurrently, of course.

  2. I've read only one book by Piers Anthony, and it was so bad I was never tempted to read another.

    My review here Macroscope.

    1. Hi Steve!

      I actually blogged about Macroscrope when returning to Anthony a few years ago. I did think it had a lot of recommend to it, but I can see why it could alienate some readers, too.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Thoughts upon Reading Tolkien's New & Expanded LETTERS

Uncovering CS Lewis's First Religious Poem