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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

A Popular Book?

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, September 28, 2014


So, what makes a book popular?  Why do people line up to read a particular book and other titles sit quietly on the shelf just hoping that someone will grab their spine and take them home?


I realize that in the new era of eBooks, I am using traditional technology; so let me ask “why do people download a book from the Cloud into their device?”


I have been asking various librarians in our system that same question for the past few weeks and getting many answers.


One librarian said, “If we knew why people read specific books, and how they selected them, it would be easier to select new books for the library!”


We have six people who read reviews of upcoming books (paper and eBook), and their collective interests and wisdom are put together to order upcoming books for the library system.  We add computer reports looking for interests and trends, and comments from library users, and sometimes we guess correctly, and sometimes not.


The process is complicated by the new world of print-on-demand and the ability for someone to produce a book without the traditional editor and publisher and marketing track, allowing an all-time record number of new books to be produced annually.


First, let me examine one of the most successful authors in the literary marketplace today. James Patterson.  His first novel appeared in 1976 at the age of 29.  Today, he has produced 95 novels and holds the record for 19 consecutive novels on the New York Times Best Seller List.


The author whose works have sold more than 300 million books received his college degree in advertising and marketing, and it shows from his books.  His stories are consistent, the book covers are all similar in format, and he is a great writer.


His books have reached the point that they are often not reviewed, and bookstores and libraries purchase them because James Patterson wrote them.


Stephen King is a similar author.  He is the same age as Patterson, both born in 1947.  I have said that King could write a book with a thousand blank pages, and people would buy it.


He has written 50 novels, with seven written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman just to see if people read his work, or just buy his books because of his name.  Fans of Stephen King quickly determined that Bachman was really Stephen King.


People read about books, people see movies made from books.  “The Maze Runner” by James Dashner was written five years ago but became a bestselling book after the movie was released.  Other movies are based on no book, but a book is later produced to fill the interest produced by the movie.


A mention on social media, or within an Internet Blog can send sales of a book skyrocketing.  We have noticed sudden interest in a book title at the library, and it can take some hunting and investigation to locate what triggered the interest.  eBooks sometimes have a different title from their paper counterpart with detective work needed to locate the opposite titled book.


I contend that after 44 years of working in libraries, “curiosities” are a key ingredient to books that become popular.  The local title, “Mobsters, Madams, and Murder in Steubenville, Ohio: the Story of Little Chicago by Susan Guy is in its third printing, and is now available as an eBook. 


Our system now has 35 copies of the paper book available and 28 copies of the eBook, with about 200 people on Hold for the next available copy.


Our librarians commented that popular books need to have solid character development within the storyline of the book, a great setting for the story to take place, and a story worth reading.


Author Mary Higgins Clark agreed with that observation.  Many years ago, she spoke to our state library association conference in Columbus, and noted that a good book has to have a “story worth telling.”