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"The American cultural historian Robert Darnton, who specializes in the literary history of the French Enlightenment, made a study of banned books on the eve of the French Revolution. He opposes the prevailing view that there is a causal link between the spread of what we know as Enlightenment literature - namely by encyclopedists such as Rousseau - and the outbreak of the French Revolution. Darnton proves, on the basis of previously undiscovered bookkeeping accounts of a Swiss commercial printer that not the encyclopedists were the bestsellers of their time. That privilege was reserved for scabrous novels à la The Story of Dom Bougre, Porter of the Carthusians (1741), The Indiscreet Jewels (1748) by Diderot and Thérèse Philosophe (1748), novels which both embody enlightened philosophy, and also deal with the enlightenment in an 'embodied' fashion."--A History of Erotica (2011) by Jan-Willem Geerinck

"A novel which sold well in the eighteenth century - and even the most successful book rarely sold more than a few thousand copies - did so within a fairly closed circle of readers, many of whom as writers also participated in deciding the prevailing criteria of literary excellence." --The Myth of Superwoman (1990) by Resa L. Dudovitz, page 21

"By the mid-nineteenth century cheaper editions and improved access to reading material through subscriptions and in France, through reading rooms, pushed sales of a popular novel as high as 10,000 copies. Although critics continued to function as the arbiters of taste, the critical elite could no longer claim literature to be their exclusive property."--The Myth of Superwoman (1990) by Resa L. Dudovitz, page 22

"Women were often the first professional writers and as Nina Baym and Resa Dudovitz have ascertained, bestsellers have often been written by women writers. Yet women they have been patriarchally erased from literary histories."--Sholem Stein

Thérèse Philosophe (1748), one of the most read texts of the French enlightenment.
Thérèse Philosophe (1748), one of the most read texts of the French enlightenment.

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A bestseller is a book that is identified as extremely popular. The New York Times Best Seller list is one of the best-known bestseller lists for the US. An early European bestseller was Letters of a Portuguese Nun.

Bestsellers tend not to be books considered of superior academic value or literary quality, though there are many exceptions. Lists simply give the highest-selling titles in the category over the stated period.

A good indication of the popularity of a writer is the Index Translationum. The notion of bestseller can be contrasted to cult fiction or underground literature.


In other media

Blockbusters for films and chart-toppers in recorded music are similar terms, although, in film and music, these measures generally are related to industry sales figures for attendance, requests, broadcast plays, or units sold.

Early bestsellers

medieval bestsellers and Renaissance bestsellers

Etymology and terminology

The term bestseller, has a relatively modern etymological origin since it was first used in 1889, but the phenomenon of immediate popularity goes back to the early days of mass production of printed books. For earlier books, when the maximum number of copies that would be printed was relatively small, a count of editions is the best way to assess sales. Since effective copyright was slow to take hold, many editions were pirated well into the period of the Enlightenment, and without effective royalty systems in place, authors often saw little, if any, of the revenues for their popular works.

Middle Ages

The earliest highly popular books were nearly all religious, but the Bible, as a large book, remained expensive until the nineteenth century. This tended to keep the numbers printed and sold low. Unlike today, it was important for a book to be short to be a bestseller, or it would be too expensive to reach a large audience. Very short works such as Ars moriendi, the Biblia pauperum, and versions of the Apocalypse were published as cheap block-books in large numbers of different editions in several languages in the fifteenth century. These were probably affordable items for most of the minority of literate members of the population.


In 16th and 17th century England Pilgrim's Progress (1678) and abridged versions of Foxe's Book of Martyrs were the most broadly read books. Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Roderick Random (1748) were early eighteenth century short novels with very large publication numbers, as well as gaining international success.

18th century

The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France

Tristram Shandy, a rather long novel by Laurence Sterne, became a "cult" object in England and throughout Europe, with important cultural consequences among those who could afford to purchase books during the era of its publication. The same could be said of the works of Rousseau, especially Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761), and of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) (1774). As with some modern bestsellers, Werther spawned what today, would be called a spin-off industry, with items such as Werther eau de cologne and porcelain puppets depicting the main characters, being sold in large numbers.

19th century

By the time of Byron and Sir Walter Scott, effective copyright laws existed, at least in England, and many authors depended heavily on their income from their large royalties. America remained a zone of piracy until the mid-nineteenth century, a fact of which Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain, bitterly complained. By the middle of the 19th century, a situation akin to modern publication had emerged, where most bestsellers were written for a popular taste and are now almost entirely forgotten, with odd exceptions such as East Lynne (remembered only for the line "Gone, gone, and never called me mother!"), the wildly popular Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Sherlock Holmes.


See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Bestseller" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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