A Tale of Two Bestseller Lists

There is no bigger mistake a writer can make than checking out the bestseller lists each week to see if his book is on it. If it isn’t there – and for 99% of all writers, it isn’t there – the experience is sheer torture. Every week.

I do it regularly.

And I've been taking notes. And I noticed something on the fiction lists (though I am a non-fiction writer) that says a lot about the difference between Germany and the US.

First of all, of the 15 titles on the current US list, 15 are from US authors. That means Harry Potter isn’t out yet.

Of the first fifteen authors on the German "Spiegel" list (I stopped counting at 15 for comparison reasons), only 6 are German. The others come from all over: from Sweden and Denmark, France, Ireland, the UK (Marina Lewycka, Frederick Forsyth) and two from the US (Hannibal Rising and Michael Crichton's Next).

Germans are always complaining that big American authors are taking over their literary culture and edging out everyone else, but the truth is that Germans love foreign culture and import it from everywhere. Usually there are one or two African or Near East novelists on the list too (Pamuk has one title).

More interestingly – and this poses a dilemma for any writer – the German list represents a large mix of genres, while the New York Times list is nearly completely made up of mysteries and thrillers (I counted Hannibal Rising as a thriller, though it could also be drama or literature – Thomas Harris was originally a thriller-writer before he got weird):New York Times:

Thrillers/Mystery: 8
Horror-Thriller: 1
Sci-Fi: 2 (including 1 sci-fi thriller)
Literature/Drama: 3 (including Norman Mailer, Castle in the Forest)
Love Story: 1


Thriller/Mystery: 7
Comedy: 3
Literature/Drama: 5

(I counted Daniel Kehlmann's "Die Vermessung der Welt" as literature, though it could be counted as a historical novel – historical novels slanted toward women are very popular in Germany now and the lower end of the bestseller list – numbers 16 – 25 – is loaded with them.)For a writer like me, who writes in two languages, this is a dilemma. It means that if I were to make the attempt to succeed as a novel writer in America, I would have to write thrillers or murder mysteries. On the one hand that's good: it means I know what's expected of me. On the other, it's bad: I can’t write thrillers.

In Germany, on the other hand, you have the freedom to write what you want. Though publishers will tell you that your chances are best with thrillers, historical novels or comedies, in fact anything can make the bestseller lists with a little luck. Or, nothing at all.


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