The Constancy of the Thriller Market as the World Changes

As I have acknowledged many a time bestseller lists have real limitations as an image of the market — merely telling us which ten or fifteen or thirty books in some category happened to be selling fastest at the moment the list was made, while the listmakers’ unavoidable arbitrariness in bounding their categories and roundabout and incomplete manner of collecting the data, and the susceptibility of the process to manipulation ( there are now companies you can pay to get your book on the list!), leave the lists far from ideal even according to that standard.

Nonetheless, in the absence of better those of us who for whatever reason find ourselves caring about what fiction people are actually buying find ourselves relying on them rather heavily. Certainly such lists have seemed to me of some usefulness in tracking certain developments, like the way that thriller fiction changed profoundly in the 1990s, with the sales of political-international-type thrillers — the spy novels, the techno-thrillers and the rest — declining, audiences instead seeming to prefer more crime-themed, domestically situated thrillers. This seems to me to have had many factors — among them the shift of action-adventure away from print toward other media — but it also seems that the politics of the 1990s, and particularly the end-of-history mood after the Cold War, had something to do with it.

Of course that mood has changed profoundly this century, with old-fashioned great power conflict intensifying greatly — and turning very violent in places like Ukraine and Syria. No longer can one say that great power conflict is not on the public’s radar. But is it affecting the public’s interests as readers? The question sent me back to the bestseller lists, wondering if there has been a renewal of the presence of thrillers of the sort that deal in such subject matter — but so far I see little evidence of that.

Consider, for example, Admiral James Stavridis’ novel 2034 about a Sino-American conflict. It hit the market in a blaze of publicity but I tried and failed to spot it on the Times’ hardcover list (the book apparently not making any of the fifteen upper rungs for a single week).

Meanwhile a year after its debut it has a mere 8,000 ratings on Goodreads. Of course, the meaning of those numbers is far from self-evident, and it is not easy to find really appropriate thriller comparisons, because for a long time the market has had so few bestselling thrillers by new authors. It has been just Grisham and Patterson and Baldacci and the rest over and over again, often in the same franchises, with #20 in some series probably unlikely to get a disproportionately low number of ratings to its sales because it is, after all, #20, leaving readers with that much less to say about it. But for all that it is not a particularly impressive number by comparison with their work. John Grisham’s Jake Brigance novel, A Time for Mercy, out at about the same time, scored over 70,000 ratings. Stavridis’ ratings also compare poorly in this respect with the 24,000 Amanda Gorman’s poem (a poem in an age in which “no one” reads poetry!) The Hill We Climb got — and, just so you can compare it with books that really got people talking, the over 300,000 ratings Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I got (the first of the novels on which the hit Netflix show Bridgerton is based), the 391,000 for Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, and the numbers for those continuing strong sellers of prior years, the more than 1 million ratings for Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and the 1.7 million for Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. The result is that one may fairly consider the Stavridis book to have found a readership, but it is absolutely no event comparable to that comeback book for the genre, John Hackett’s The Third World War, or the pop cultural splash made by the successes of Tom Clancy, Stephen Coonts and others in the mid-1980s.

It may yet be that the Cold War’s end, and other related factors, deprived stories of international conflict of much of their interest for the public — but the revival of those conflicts has not brought that public back as yet in any major way, and likely will not. At this point in time it seems to me that, in contrast with those years when Tom Clancy, Top Gun and Rambo became such a formidable pop cultural presence the thought of war leaves many who had previously gobbled that sort of stuff up weary, repulsed, frightened, and at the least put off by the way techno-thrillers and the like handled such material. Indeed, even Scott Mendleson at Forbes — no leftie publication, that — wrote that for Top Gun 2 to have “no more nuance or commentary on the current military-industrial complex than its predecessor” would be “ almost morally irresponsible considering the times we live in” (emphasis added). Meanwhile, those who are receptive to unashamedly ‘80s-style content appear content to get it from their video games and TV series’ and the rest, save for the few (I suspect, old loyalists) who still read Jack Ryan continuation novels.

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

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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.