No, USA Today, The Great Gatsby Was Not the Best Book of 2013

by evanmcmurry

Can USA Today seriously not find a book published in 2013 that was worthy of highlighting? It’s not like there aren’t lists, if it wants to skip the hard work.

But despite itself, the paper’s post illustrates an interesting point about bestsellers and longevity. I remember talking to a bookbuyer once who said that classics consistently outsell even the Clancys and Grishams of the book world. On any given day, a new Stephen King or David Balducci title might sell astronomically more than Middlemarch, but average it out over the year or the lifetime of a book, and it pays much more to stock George Eliot.

That appears to be what USAT is describing without realizing it:

E.L. James and her titillating Fifty Shades of Grey bondage trilogy is so 2012.

In 2013, it was another love story — one that’s 88 years old — that redefined sexy reading.

At least in the MFA/budding writer world, we tend to view sales in terms of individual careers; year-end bestseller lists view sales as a race among an elite slice of competitive books; nail-biting articles on the health of the book industry tend to view sales as a giant monolith.

Lost in all this is different types of books perform differently over time. Fifty Shades sustained the book industry for a while, but the sheer tonnage of unwanted copies is actually causing problems for charities. Great Gatsby, which was in danger of going out of print when Fitzgerald died, is now a perennial bestseller. It pays to write a book that lasts, even if it doesn’t always pay the author.

That’s no reason to name a title published almost 100 years ago the best book of 2013. In fact, it’s all the more reason to find The Great Gatsby of 2013 among the hundreds of excellent novels published this year to the same modest sales that befell Gatsby’s initial run. Once again, it’s not like there aren’t lists of these things.