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This summer I’ll have been working in the book industry for 22 years, first as a bookseller and then for library wholesalers. Over that time I’ve seen many short-shelf life titles. These are the books that either get returned to the publisher at first opportunity, or titles that are popular for a brief burst and then fade into oblivion. With the recent deaths of Clive Cussler, Mary Higgins Clark, Joanna Lindsey and M.C. Beaton (all of whom were still publishing before their deaths), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what gives these or any authors staying power.

 

I first discovered Mary Higgins Clark’s mysteries through my mom, and continued to enjoy her books for many years. Believe it or not, she published her first novel Where Are The Children in 1975, and since then, most or all of her 38 solo suspense novels (not counting those she co-authored with son Alafair Burke and daughter Carol Higgins Clark) have become bestsellers and have perpetually stayed in print.

 

In an age where up to 1 million books are being published annually in the United States alone, shrinking attention spans, and limited shelf space, the fact that an author can still get new titles on the bestseller list is quite a feat. Digging deeper, when I examined a top 100 list of most popular fiction authors, I discovered some pretty interesting facts about authors that I either used to read or currently read who have been around for decades.

 

wedding dress by danielle steel / a bride in a tapered dress against an purple fieldPopular romance author Danielle Steel is the fourth bestselling fiction author of all time, and has sold over 800 million copies of her books since her first the publication of her first novel in 1973. She even set a Guinness World Record in 1989 for spending the most consecutive weeks on a bestseller list- 390 weeks or 7.5 years in total, which rarely happens. To put it in perspective, only about 37% of fiction titles stay on the list more than 4 weeks, and the longest number of weeks of any title currently on the New York Times Bestseller list is 74. These days, she can be counted on to release around 6 books a year, and while they may not be reaching Guinness levels, they are consistently in demand.

 

hideaway by nora roberts / a flower garden on a cliff over looking the ocean

Nora Roberts, who does double duty writing as herself and under the pen name J.D. Robb published her first novel in 1981, and has more than 400 million copies of her books in print. 59 of her books have debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and she’s been dubbed America’s favourite novelist by The New Yorker. She’s been a favourite of mine for several years, and the million copy print runs of her recent releases suggests that the title is accurate.

 

devoted by dean koontz / a tree in silhouetted against a sky on fireSuspense novelist Dean Koontz, whom I also discovered through my mom, has been around since 1968 when he published the sci-fi novel Star Quest, but he really gained notoriety when he started writing suspense/horror fiction. At least 14 of his books have hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. These are just a few examples, but authors such as Sandra Brown, Stephen King, Fern Michaels, and Stuart Woods have also been publishing since the 70s or 80s, and are still consistently popular with readers.

 

So what does give all of these authors their amazing staying power? Mass appeal is one reason. All of these authors managed to find a mass audience for their books, and they retain their audience because they tell good stories and the books are extremely readable. Calling a book addictive is high praise because it means you can’t put it down. If an author is successful in giving you that experience, naturally you’d want to read another of their titles. There’s also comfort in familiarity, and it’s a lot easier to stick with what you know than to break away and try something new.

 

Compelling characters would be another reason. There is something about their characters that draws us in, makes us care about them to the point that we become invested in their lives. We laugh with them, cry for them, wish we could be them, and want to continually read more about them. Pride and Prejudice was published over 200 years ago, and yet Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy still resonate with modern audiences. To Kill a Mockingbird is over 60-years-old, and Atticus Finch is one of the most beloved characters in literature.

 

the return by nicholas sparks / a garden gate door covered in vinesThe third commonality is that they have universal themes that readers relate to. Whether it’s the struggle to reach a personal goal, a struggle with humanity, life and death, good and evil, and the ever-popular love, the most famous novels address some or all of these themes. Nicholas Sparks who is best known for his tragic love story The Notebook has a huge following, and he’s widely considered the standard for modern romance. He writes about ordinary people who find love and often lose love through tragedy. While some people may criticize the author for his saccharinity and sappiness, there is something about these stories that draws readers and keeps them coming back for each new book.

 

Obviously these aren’t the only reasons that keep us sticking with our favourite authors, but it’s a pretty safe bet that the popular authors of today who are still hitting bestseller lists in 10, 20 or 30 years, all of their books will have these things in common.

 

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Happy Reading!

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