Seven Things You Don’t Know About The Bestselling Books of 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne.

It’s December, and that means a few things are certain. One, your gift-shopping list has taken on an urgency and ominous weight that haunts you in your dreams. Two, wine and spirits have grown to a disproportionate percentage of your grocery bills. And three, everyone everywhere is posting Best-Of lists and final tallies of the top-selling everything.

Book sellers are no exception; the lists are multiplying, and to make it more confusing blogs and other sites are picking up the lists and simply re-posting them. People like statistics, of course, but simply knowing the Top Ten or Twenty bestselling books of the year doesn’t really illuminate much, does it? After all, some of the titles are not exactly surprises. (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was the #1 bestseller of 2016? You don’t say!)

For reference, here are Amazon’s Top 20 Bestsellers for 2016, for reference:

  1. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2, Special Rehearsal Edition Script by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany
  2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
  3. The Whistler by John Grisham
  4. The Last Mile by David Baldacci
  5. Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
  6. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
  7. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
  8. Night School by Lee Child
  9. The Black Widow by Daniel Silva
  10. Diary of a Wimpy Kid # 11: Double Down by Jeff Kinney
  11. 15th Affair by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
  12. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
  13. Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben
  14. Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience with Hillary, Bill, and How They Operate by Gary J. Byrne
  15. The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly
  16. The Magnolia Story by Chip Gaines and Joanna Gaines
  17. The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
  18. One with You Sylvia Day
  19. The Obsession by Nora Roberts
  20. Everything We Keep by Kerry Lonsdale

2016 was, however, a year of surprises and plot twists. In fact, if David Foster Wallace’s concept of Sponsored Time from were to come true, 2016 would likely be known as the Year of Plot Twists. That extends to the List of Bestselling Books—while Harry Potter might not be a surprise, there are surprises on the list. Here, for example, are seven things we’ll bet you don’t know about the bestselling books of 2016.



What’s that? The Girl on the Train came out in 2015? Why, you’re right! And yet, this blockbuster thriller spent the most weeks on The New York Times’ fiction bestseller lists—ten weeks, to be precise. Paula Hawkins’ masterpiece of paranoia and unreliable narration was helped by the release of the film adaptation starring Emily Blunt, of course, but it sailed in 2016 riding a strong wave of its own reputation as the must-read, mind-blowing twister that everyone referenced and talked about.

Let’s keep some perspective, though; ten weeks sounds impressive, but it doesn’t even come close to the all-time record for most weeks on the NYT list. That honor goes to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, which spent a whopping 216 weeks on the list.

Besides, The Girl on the Train didn’t even log the most weeks on the bestseller lists overall—that goes to Kalanithi’s heartbreaking memoir, which spent thirteen weeks on the non-fiction list making everyone in the world reconsider their priorities (trust us, do not read this book after spending a day binge-watching Stranger Things and shopping for throw pillows online; you will have regrets).

Kalanithi’s incredible book, written while he was literally dying from cancer and offering his perspective on life (he passed away at the age of 38), is a moving work from an intelligent, charming doctor who had everything. Serving as a grim reminder of how fragile our lives are, it was in a lot of ways the ideal book for a year that reminded us how fragile everything is on a daily basis.

Okay, so Harry Potter and the Cursed Child hitting the #1 spot on the bestseller lists for 2016 was no surprise. But did you know it’s the first time a play has done so? Plays don’t often get published as bound books in the first place, and usually have to be either classics like Shakespeare or have made their mark culturally on the boards long before. The chugging pop-culture machine that is Harry Potter took care of all that—Rowling and her collaborators could have published a collection of limericks and likely held the top spot for weeks. The fact that she now has the first play to be a fiction book bestseller is just one more feather in Rowling’s cap.

Publishing megastars often sneak up on you; they start off as modest hits and then suddenly you look back and realize they’re dominating everything. Jeff Kinney has been publishing his Wimpy Kid series since 2007 (it started off as an online series in 2004), and the eleventh book in the series, Double Down, spent some time on the bestseller lists this year. Which isn’t unusual; if you haven’t been paying attention, author Jeff Kinney has spent time on the bestseller lists for the last four years in a row with his Wimpy Kid books. That’s quite a run.

Bestseller lists like this can be a bit mind-numbing; after the first few slots, people tend to scan for familiar names or huge, with every other title fading into the background. So let’s take a moment to single out The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, the top debut novel of the year.

The Nest details the squabbles of the Plumb siblings, whose father built a vast fortune and set up a fund—a nest egg—for his children. The nest-egg is set to be released when the youngest daughter turns 40. While their father intended the trust to be a gift to his children who he assumed would have built their own financial lives by their middle age; in reality the looming wealth has inspired the Plumb kids to be irresponsible, because they know their debts will be taken care of when the nest finally breaks open. But what happens if the nest egg everyone is waiting for isn’t quite as robust as expected? That’s the hook for this fabulous novel, which clocked at number 17 on Amazon’s bestseller list this year.

Before the Fall is a great book, centered on the crash of a private plane and the uber-rich passengers on board. Suspenseful, masterfully paced, and filled with rich characters, you’re not surprised to discover that this isn’t Noah Hawley’s first novel—in fact, it's his fifth. And it shows; there are no purple sections, no plot mistakes, no freshman “cool” dialogue missteps.

Hawley’s relatively low profile as a novelist is surprising, because his first career is in TV, where he’s currently the showrunner for FX’s hit series Fargo, adapted from the original Coen Brothers’ film. Hawley has had a lot of success in television, in fact, but Before the Fall is his first smash as a writer. In an unsurprising move, Hawley made his own deal to adapt his own novel to film, with Sony Pictures.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance was a slow-burn bestseller that appeared on the lists without much fanfare, and then ... stayed there. It’s one of those books that people were buzzing about, but after the Presidential Election its stock rose incredibly, for one simple reason: It suddenly seemed prescient.

In this remarkable memoir, Vance discusses his family’s background, stretching back to its roots in Kentucky and through a move to Ohio. His family was working-class, included plenty of alcoholics and abusive relationships, but also had strong values and thick streak of patriotism. Vance’s complicated story of relative poverty and resentment towards those who seemed to profit off programs such as welfare (he relates a telling anecdote about working as a cashier in a grocery store and watching people use welfare to buy food while talking on cell phones—when Vance himself, despite having a job, could not afford a phone) is, in many ways, the story of the election. Although Vance left behind his rust-belt roots to join the Marines, graduate from Yale, and become a rich executive at a Silicon Valley investment firm, his memoir relates the worldview of the vanishing working class that history might see as the key to a volatile election, making it the sort of book everyone ought to read this year.

The Tale of the Year in Books

Book sales aren’t the only way to judge a book’s success. Plenty of bad books sell like hotcakes, plenty of great books are initially fizzles in the market. But the books that sell often tell the story of a year, and 2016’s bestseller lists are no different: Eclectic, escapist, angry—these are the books that defined the last twelve months.