Publishers Weekly’s surprising sales tally for 2009


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Publishers Weekly’s final tally of 2009 books sales has a few surprises. Who would have guessed that California author Lisa See was selling as many books as E.L. Doctorow and Margaret Atwood put together? Or that political tomes from Sarah Palin, Edward Kennedy and Glenn Beck have replaced the slimmer South Beach Diet and self-help books that used to rule the nonfiction list?

It takes until March to get the tally together because booksellers can ship unsold books back to publishers. Those returns have now been subtracted, so these are supposed to be pretty good real numbers for 2009. The business of actual sales -- and shipping, sales and returns -- is a touchy one in publishing, and some companies provide these sales figures to Publishers Weekly on a confidential basis, for ranking purposes only. It would be nice if we had hard stats, but this is about as close as we’re going to get.


Not surprisingly, Dan Brown topped the fiction bestseller list with ‘The Lost Symbol,’ his ‘Da Vinci Code’ follow-up. ‘The Lost Symbol’ sold 5.5 million hardcover copies -- short of its predecessor, but about five times more than each of the other books in the top 10. Janet Evanovich, Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer -- all usual subjects -- have bestselling spots. Michael Crichton makes his first posthumous appearance with ‘The Pirate Latitudes,’ while Patricia Cornwell, very much alive, has two books in the top 10.

So does John Grisham -- but in a twist, he’s got one legal thriller, ‘The Associate,’ plus his debut collection of short stories, ‘Ford County.’ Common wisdom says that short stories don’t sell, so Grisham’s powerful showing -- ‘Ford County’ was the No. 5 bestselling hardcover fiction book of 2009 -- indicates either that common wisdom is due for revision, or that John Grisham can do whatever he likes, regardless.

In nonfiction, Sarah Palin’s ‘Going Rogue’ outsold Edward Kennedy’s memoir ‘True Compass’ three-to-one. While Palin undertook a high-profile tour to promote the book -- Kennedy, who died weeks before his book’s release, could not -- it’s clear that the appetite for all things Palin extended to book buyers. Faith (in books by Mitch Albom and Joel Osteen) and sports (memoirs from Joe Torre and Andre Agassi) also performed well.

This is the last year that PW’s list will not include ebooks. How might those sales have affected the rankings? Would Palin be even more popular? Would some classic -- say, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ -- make a surprise appearance? This year, the number of hardcover books selling more than 100,000 in both fiction and nonfiction was down. Would ebooks make up the difference? Sadly, we’ll have to wait a year to find out.

-- Carolyn Kellogg