Classic Literary Fiction

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” in which it predicted that the precipitous decline in literary reading in this country since the 1980’s would lead, ultimately, to its extinction within a generation or two. Given such a gloomy assessment, it was reasonable to assume that the bottom would fall out from under the classic literary fiction market. Well, it didn’t.

In 2004, the year “Reading At Risk” was published, dollar sales of classic fiction actually grew, as it has in 2005 and 2006. In fact, Simba Information, which tracks these things, estimates that sales of classic fiction last year exceeded those of the mystery category (as well as biography, computers, gardening, how-to, and travel). It’s no accident, I think, that The New York Times has just introduced a new online forum for their book review section devoted to the discussion of the great books. There has even been some thought given to compiling a separate New York Times bestseller list for classics. This doesn’t sound like a category in crisis to me.

According to Simba Information’s Business of Consumer Book Publishing, classic literary fiction generated an estimated $448 million in 2006, an increase of 4.2% over 2005, and 28% over 2002. The five leading publishing companies accounted for $273 million last year, or 61% of total category revenues. The top five companies were Penguin Group, Oxford University Press, Random House, Houghton Mifflin, and Simon & Schuster.

Penguin is the leading publisher of classic literary fiction, generating sales of $89.7 million in 2006, primarily through its Penguin Classics and Signet imprints. Penguin Classics, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2006, has a backlist of 1,300 titles. Random House generated an estimated $64.1 million in sales of classic literary fiction through its Modern Library and Bantam imprints. Though lacking a marquee classics imprint, Oxford University Press has still managed to sell an estimated $71 million in 2006.

According to Bowker’s Books In Print database, 7,601 books classified as literature (including literary criticism) were published in the U.S. in 2006, a 21% increase over 2005, but 5% less than the peak year of 2004, when 7,972 were published. Below is a graph representing new classic literary fiction titles published since 2002:


Classic fiction sales are largely driven by school curriculums. The bestselling classic fiction titles at Barnes & Noble stores and website are a perfect example of this. Books by John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Jane Austen (who is, to be fair, also enjoying a renaissance that extends beyond the nation’s high school English classrooms), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and George Orwell. Sometimes there are odd omissions due to misclassification. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, for example, was classified as “Crimes-Fiction” by Barnes & Noble (or Bowker, who is Barnes & Noble’s data provider) instead of “Fiction & Literature – Classics.”It should be noted that most of the bestselling classics at Barnes & Noble stores are the ones published by Barnes & Noble itself as part of its Barnes & Noble Classics Series. They are hard to miss. Borders Group also publishes classics in the public domain under its house imprint. As of this writing, the current slate of bestselling classics from Barnes & Noble include:

  • Candide, by Voltaire. Translated by Henry Morley. (Barnes & Noble)
  • Odyssey, by Homer. Translated by W.H. Rouse. (Signet Classics)
  • Beowulf. Translated by John McNamara. (Barnes & Noble)
  • Of Mice & Men, by John Steinbeck. (Penguin Group)
  • The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. Translated by Lionel Giles (Barnes & Noble)
  • Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. (Barnes & Noble)
  • Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. (Penguin Group)
  • A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (Dover Publications)
  • Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. (Penguin Group)
  • Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. (Barnes & Noble)
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. (Barnes & Noble)
  • The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Bantam Books)
  • Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. (Dover Publications)


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