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Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction [Paperback]

John Sutherland

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Book Description

Nov. 25 2007 Very Short Introductions
I rejoice', said Doctor Johnson, 'to concur with the Common Reader.' For the last century, the tastes and preferences of the common reader have been reflected in the American and British bestseller lists, and this Very Short Introduction takes an engaging look through the lists to reveal what we have been reading - and why. John Sutherland shows that bestseller lists monitor one of the strongest pulses in modern literature and are therefore worthy of serious study. Along the way, helifts the lid on the bestseller industry, examines what makes a book into a bestseller, and asks what separates bestsellers from canonical fiction. Exploring the relationship between bestsellers and the fashions, ideologies, and cultural concerns of the day, the book includes short case-studies and lively summaries of bestsellers through the years: from iIn His Steps/i - now almost totally forgotten, but the biggest all-time bestseller between 1895 and 1945, to iGone with the Wind/i and iThe Andromeda Strain/i, and iThe Da Vinci Code/i.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (Nov. 25 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199214891
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199214891
  • Product Dimensions: 17.4 x 11.3 x 0.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 113 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #656,455 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

His amiable trawl through the history of popular books is frequently entertaining Scott Pack, The Times breezily entertaining Kevin Power, Irish Times (Dublin) Sutherland effectively challenges the assumption that a book's commercial success somehow invalidates either its author's integrity or the critical acumen of its readers. Instead we are offered a plausible vision of the blockbuster or the bodice-ripper as narrative in its purest form. Jonathan Keates, TLS

About the Author

John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, and Professor of Literature at Caltech. He has published many books, including, most recently, iSo You Think You Know Jane Austen?/i and iSo You Think You Know Thomas Hardy?/i, and has edited 15 volumes in the Oxford World's Classics series (most recently Lytton Strachey's iEminent Victorians/i). He writes and reviews widely, including in the iTLS/i and iLRB/i, and writes regular columns in the iGuardian/i, iFinancial Times/i, iNew Statesman/i, and iSunday Telegraph/i. In 2005, he was chair of the Man-Booker fiction prize committee.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very limited scope, not a lot of insight Dec 1 2007
By A. J. Sutter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is below the standard of many other volumes in the VSI series, and also a bit shorter (116 pages of text). Early on there's an interesting compare and contrast of the US and UK "bestseller" markets. After some discussion of what is a bestseller, and the history of lists, the bulk of the book is a kind of gossipy recitation or series of capsule descriptions of the main bestselling novels in the US (Chap. 4) and the UK (Chap. 5) during the 20th Century. The focus throughout is on the content and genres of these books. There is a short Chap. 6, about 4 pp., about digitization and e-books.

Notwithstanding that this is a VSI and therefore of necessity concise, there are many unfortunate shortcomings of the approach taken here:

(i) no discussion of other countries' bestsellers, or even of the influence of Anglophone books on the bestseller lists in other EU countries, to say nothing of Japan, Latin America, etc.;

(ii) next to no discussion of the business aspects of bestsellerdom, including, among other topics: agents and advances, the relationship of bestsellers to the backlist, and media tie-ins and merchandising; and

(iii) no discussion of non-fiction. This last is puzzling: since the thesis of the book is that one can learn something about the preoccupations of an era by looking at its bestseling novels, one might think its best-selling non-fiction would be at least as transparent a gauge of the Zeitgeist. And some lines on the history of the self-help and business book genres, for example, would also have been reasonable to include in a book so titled.

All in all, this book might be of most interest to someone looking for a chatty bit of "cultural studies" fluff as a kind of sorbet course between more substantial books. If you're expecting a book about the publishing business, or even a more serious cultural analysis, you will probably be disappointed.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Here Today, Gone Tomorrow Dec 31 2008
By K. N. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
John Sutherland's contribution to Oxford's VSI series is an informative condensation of major themes in the sociology of literature. It is not a comprehensive analysis of all bestselling genres (e.g., self-help books, popular history, etc.), nor is it exhaustive of all geographic areas (confining itself to the Anglo-American book markets). Nonetheless, Sutherland stays true to the VSI format (brevity and readability) and provides his readers with a pithy survey of major bestsellers and their social, literary, and cultural contexts.

While it is true that there are other studies that deal with the bestseller phenomenon more extensively (of which Sutherland cites a handful in his bibliography), this VSI book has the advantage of inviting lay readers to reflect on the origins and development of bestseller marketing over the course of the twentieth century. Drawing from his wide knowledge of bestselling titles in the U.S. and Britain, Sutherland offers numerous examples of books that happened to capture their historical moment perfectly, only to fade away once that moment had passed. Sutherland is careful to point out the importance of genre (especially with crime fiction and westerns), political ideology (see his discussion of Tom Clancy and John Grisham), and media tie-ins (with 1976's *The Omen* as the landmark screenplay-novelization tie-in) in establishing a book's bestseller status in a given time and place. The examples are brief, but by the end of Sutherland's survey one has a good impression of the various strategies authors, publishers, and advertisers have used to secure books' lucrative, albeit fleeting, place on the bestseller lists.

Again, there are other books out there that delve deeper into the bestseller phenomenon. Two titles Sutherland doesn't cite but that remain illuminating are Thomas Whiteside's *The Blockbuster Complex*, based on a series of articles he wrote for the *New Yorker* in the 1970s, and Andre Schiffrin's more recent *The Business of Books*. Still, Sutherland's VSI is a pleasant, accessible read, and one that brings lay readers into conversation with an enduring object of study in the sociology of literature.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Concise but informative Dec 20 2007
By Ronald H. Clark - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a recent addition to Oxford's superb but inexpensive "Very Short Introduction" series, which tend to be handy to use, brief in duration, but packed with information (i.e., the perfect "plane book"). I have read other books on this subject, which largely focus on various past bestseller lists. The author here is attempting something more useful--to really explore the concept of what is a bestseller and what factors account for some books becoming bestsellers and others not. The author is British, so his focus is the U.S. and the UK, but he well explains how some common factors have impacted both countries. One of the more interesting findings is that due to the late agreement in the US to abide by British copyrights, many of the bestsellers in this country during the 19th century were cheap unauthorized reprints of British works. The author also discusses how the unique British marketing controls on books (essentially, no discounts; all sell at the same price) had an impact there. Separate chapters are devoted to American (with which the author is quite conversant) and British bestsellers. In the American chapter, the author suggests common factors which determined whether a book might be a bestseller, and establishes some analytical categories for this phenomenon. The text runs 113 pages, including some quite interesting and helpful illustrations, and also includes a short bibliograpy and index. The high production values associated with OUP are present here as well. While this book will never itself become a bestseller, it certainly provides an informative introduction to that topic.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging and Informative Dec 5 2011
By Dr. Bojan Tunguz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In the high-falutin literary circles bestsellers have for a long time had a bad rap. However, whatever one may think of their literary merits (or the lack thereof), bestsellers are a fascinating look at the popular culture. Studying them we can get a glimpse of the prevailing zeitgeists, and appreciate trends that are oftentimes overlooked in the historical accounts of any given period. This is one of the aims of this very short introduction, and anyone who has even the slightest appreciation of literature and fiction in general will greatly enjoy it.

Any book could in principle become the best-selling book for any particular time period, but the more conventional definition (and the one employed by this short introduction) assumes primarily the fictional works as the part of this category. Such bestsellers usually appeal to the particular popular tastes of the time, and most of them have very little lasting literary value. Sure enough, if one looks at the past hundred plus years of fictional bestsellers, there will be hardly any name on the list that has stood the test of time. Nonetheless, there are some notable exceptions to this rule, such as Nabokov's "Lolita" and Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago."

The whole notion of bestseller is also intimately intertwined with the development of the publishing industry. Mass-market books started to proliferate early in the nineteenth century, and from the very earliest days American market has lead the way. This was facilitated by the relatively large size of the market, as well as its relatively few restrictions and regulations. Such conditions were very conducive for an almost unrestrained competition which helped drive down the prices of the published works. In the UK, however, the competition was for the longest time hindered by the price-fixing regulations, which were only lifted in the 1990s. There are certainly as many bestseller lists as there are countries, but going though all of them would have probably made this book immeasurably longer. For the sake of brevity (as well as relevance) restricting this book to just American and UK markets was probably a good idea.

One of the more appealing features of this short introduction is its charming style. John Sutherland manages to write eloquently and at times amusingly about a topic that could have potentially turned very arid. This short book was certainly a pleasure to read, and would recommend it to all fans of literature and fiction.

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