Going the Distance: Bestsellers with Staying Power

These days, everything is marketing. Everything has been leveraged, compromised, and turned into a new vector for promoting a product or service—it’s just modern life. The bestseller lists are no different, as political campaigns bulk-buy to get their candidate’s mediocre memoir onto the lists just so they can slap a “bestseller” sticker on the cover. And since we know you can, under the right circumstances, hit the New York Times Bestseller list with fewer than 10,000 sales, there are plenty of books that have that “bestseller” sticker that come and go really fast (if you’ve ever seen a book you’ve never heard of declared a bestseller, that may be why).

So, there are books that come and go on the bestseller lists in a week, and there are books that have some real staying power. Right now on the NYT Bestseller list, the long-term champ is All the Light We Cannot See, which sits at #6 after 54 weeks on the list. Which is pretty good, but doesn’t even get it into the Top 50 of bestsellers with staying power. In order to crack that list a book would need to remain a bestseller for three times as long. A lot of these books are fairly old by now, of course; the most recent entry in the Top 50 is Freakonomics, which was last on the bestseller list in 2008 and logged 111 weeks there, good enough for #16. Here’s your Top Ten Bestsellers with Staying Power—books people just kept buying and buying, for years.

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (216 Weeks)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.

That’s not a typo: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt stayed on the Bestseller List for more than four years. This “non-fiction novel” tells the story of a murder in Savannah, Georgia that took four trials to end in acquittal, but the real story is the atmosphere that Berendt manages to create, and the incredible characters he brought fully to life as he tells the true story of Danny Hansford, a male prostitute killed by antiques dealer Jim Williams in what was ultimately determined to be am accident resulting from a lover’s quarrel. Although based on real events, Berendt writes the story as if it was a novel, and plays with the time frame and details, making it a book you can enjoy as pure story if you so choose.

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Tuesdays with Morrie (206 Weeks)

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom.

Mitch Albom’s memoir recounting his visits and conversations with his former professor Morrie Schwartz (as well as some background information recounting their lives and prior relationship) was a bestseller for almost four years, and it’s easy to see why even if the saccharine nature of the book is unappealing to you. Albom flies once a week to visit the nearly 80-year old man who is dying, bringing him food and conversation, and slowly coming to appreciate life from a whole new perspective. It’s the sort of story we all hope we are secretly capable of telling.

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The Power of Positive Thinking (186 Weeks)

The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale
The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.

With a title that more or less completely explains the book’s purpose, this work by minister Norman Vincent Peale lays out his theories about how the obstacles and challenges of modern life can be overcome and handled through, you guessed it, a positive attitude. With no formal mental health training, Peale’s book has been controversial since its publication in 1952, but the general public loved the book’s simple concept and kept buying it in droves for more than three years. The books’ reputation (and sales) have suffered in recent decades as other self-help books with similar themes steal its thunder, but the title remains a permanent reference point in pop culture.

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A Light in the Attic (182 Weeks)

A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein.

This collection of poems for children by Shel Silverstein was, remarkably, controversial when it first published, as some parents felt some of the poems within encouraged children to misbehave, and one poem about a little girl who passes away was deemed a bit too heavy for children. Still, it sold like hotcakes, and while it doesn’t get much attention these days for a while there in the early 1980s it was to be found in just about every home with children in America.

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Oh, the Places You'll Go! (178 Weeks)

Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss
Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss’ perennial bestseller isn’t the first Seuss book people think of (that’s usually Green Eggs and Ham or The Cat in the Hat), but its popularity as a graduation gift (ironically or otherwise) for kids of all ages means it rises to bestseller status every year, like clockwork, so far logging 178 weeks on the lists.

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A Man Called Peter (170 Weeks)

A Man Called Peter by Catherine Marshall
A Man Called Peter by Catherine Marshall.

If you’ve never heard of this 1951 book, which remained on the bestseller lists for more than three years, you are likely not alone. Peter Marshall was a Scottish immigrant to the United States, a popular preacher in the 1930s and 1940s, and was named Chaplain of the United States Senate twice. After his death his wife Catherine wrote A Man Called Peter and it was a monster hit, selling not only millions of copies but inspiring a 1955 film based on the book—also more or less forgotten today.

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The Da Vinci Code (166 Weeks)

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

Yep, that book. For more than three years people simply could not stop buying The Da Vinci Code and arguing over its historical accuracy (or lack thereof) and theological implications. In fact, they bought it in such numbers it’s actually the only book on this list that’s also on the list of All Time Bestsellers in terms of copies sold, with 80 million. Dan Brown may never write another book as successful as this one, but he likely doesn’t have to.

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The Celestine Prophecy (165 Weeks)

The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield.

What’s remarkable about this novel is how it’s not much of a novel; the story is more or less a perfunctory thing thrown together solely to allow author James Redfield a framework on which to hang his philosophical and spiritual beliefs, which might be charitably described as “New Agey.” But the story of a man discovering ancient truths (called Insights) contained in an ancient document while the church and government chase after him to prevent their exposure.

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The Bridges of Madison County (164 Weeks)

The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller.

If you were alive in the early 1990s you recall that period of time when author Robert James Waller’s novel ruled the world. The story of a married Italian woman engaging in an affair with a photographer visiting her rural area in order to photograph the famous covered bridges, Waller often hinted it was a true story. IT wound up selling 50 million copies over its more than three years on the bestseller lists, and inspired both a film adaptation and a Broadway musical.

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Profiles in Courage (139 Weeks)

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy
Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy.

The cult of President John F. Kennedy remains strong in the United States, but in 1957 he was simply an up-and-coming politician, a rich kid from Massachusetts who’s risen to the Senate. The book, although largely written by one of Kennedy’s speechwriters, was Kennedy’s idea, and he did provide most of the ideas for it, exploring Senators throughout American history who had the courage to defy their constituents and their fellow Senators in order to do what was right. It remains one of the best-known books by a politician in American history.



Sales Vs. Lists

It’s remarkable that only one book (The Da Vinci Code) is both a bestseller with staying power and one of the highest-selling books of all time. This demonstrates how hard it is to sell tens of millions of copies of a book, and how relatively easy it is to make the lists.