Is The Thriller in Decline? A Few Thoughts on the Data

Nader Elhefnawy
2 min readMay 19, 2022

There was some talk in 2021 of thriller sales softening. Those discussing the matter gave the impression that this was some anomaly, but it seemed to me to be confirmed by the Publisher’s Weekly data on the top-selling books of the year — among which thrillers were inconspicuous.

It may be that this is a temporary, anomalous development. But looking back over the top-selling fiction lists of the past decade I can’t help suspect something deeper is going on here, the titles I see at least suggesting that the decline of the thriller has been underway for some time. Look, for example, at the list from 2010 (as archived at Wikipedia). Of the ten fiction bestsellers nine were novels, and six of those were thrillers written for adults (Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, John Grisham’s The Confession, Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive, Janet Evanovich’s Sizzling Sixteen, James Patterson’s Cross Fire, and Patricia Cornwell’s Port Mortuary). In 2011 seven of the top ten were thrillers. By contrast in 2012 the list was dominated by various YA authors (Suzanne Collins, Jeff Kinney, Rick Riordan) and E.L. James, with the principal thriller present Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl — notable for being a literary thriller rather than a commercial one (unreliable narrator, no built-in series potential, etc., etc.), with the trend very similar in 2013 and 2014 (with Veronica Roth and John Green numbering among the YA writers, and major films of the year generally having related works prove bestsellers, like Gone Girl, The Great Gatsby, Frozen), even if Grisham, Stephen King, Dan Brown put in appearances. After that point it seemed that the YA wave had crested, but that did not translate to a return of those thrillers to their old place here. Instead, where it was not simply a reflection of what was playing at the movies (as with Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You), it was becoming a good deal more eclectic in the manner we see today.

Of course, in considering this one ought to acknowledge that PW changed its method of assembling the lists significantly back in 2012, and that it seems plausible that the decline of the thriller’s prominence was at least in part a matter of changing its criteria. Still, given the other changes in the list’s composition since (like how YA not only exploded but collapsed later) that single factor seems unlikely to explain everything — and leave at least room for the suspicion that there really has been a long-term drop.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

--

--

Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.