From ‘1984’ to ‘Atlas Shrugged’: When the News Boosts Book Sales

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It’s notoriously difficult to predict whether a book will succeed. The ingredients that go into a bestseller are hazy at best, and everything from celebrity endorsements to a great cover design to sheer luck can have grand (or disappointingly little) influence. And of course, whenever a film adaptation of a book hits theaters, sales of the original text tend to get a little bump. But what about current events? Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have skyrocketed following the NSA data collection scandal — despite Obama’s protests that this is not a Big Brother situation (or perhaps in part because he made that reference). Intrigued, Flavorwire hunted down a few more instances when news affected sales of a book.

1984, George Orwell

Sales of Orwell’s 1949 dystopian classic have shot up nearly 10,000% since news broke of the NSA’s phone monitoring system. One edition of the book (which, in case you skipped tenth-grade English, is set in a totalitarian future ruled by the omnipresent Big Brother) features a foreword by Thomas Pynchon and has become the 123rd most popular book on Amazon, a dramatic increase from its previous ranking at 11,855.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Similarly, Ayn Rand’s divisive novel, which advocates “rational selfishness” and portrays any state influence in society as deeply destructive, has seen sales spikes in accordance with national news. According to The Economist , “The first jump, in September 2007, followed dramatic interest-rate cuts by central banks, and the Bank of England’s bail-out of Northern Rock, a troubled mortgage lender. The October 2007 rise happened two days after the Bush Administration announced an initiative to coax banks to assist subprime borrowers. A year later, sales of the book rose after America’s Treasury said that it would use a big chunk of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Programme to buy stakes in nine large banks. Debate over Mr Obama’s stimulus plan in January gave the book another lift. And sales leapt once again when the stimulus plan passed and Mr Obama announced a new mortgage-modification plan.” In short, “whenever governments intervene in the market… readers rush to buy Rand’s book.”

Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler

Back in 2005, Hitler’s 1933 manifesto became a bestseller in Turkey, as more than 100,000 copies were snapped up in two months. The exact cause of the alarming renewed interest for the book is unclear, but as Turkish columnist Ivo Molinas explained, “There has been a big increase in articles attacking us in the fundamentalist and nationalist press, because of what is happening in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian problem and the war in Iraq. That has affected readers, and I think boosted sales of Mein Kampf.” Other analysts connected the increase in sales to a rise in “anti-US sentiment since the invasion of Iraq.”

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, Nate Silver

Sometimes, you can sell a book just by being proven right. After Obama won reelection in 2012 — exactly the way Nate Silver predicted he would — sales of Silver’s book skyrocketed to 850% of their former glory on Amazon. So, who got the better deal, Obama or Silver? Hard to say.

Get a Grip on Physics, John Gribbin

And sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. John Gribbin’s relatively obscure 2003 physics book jumped from 396,224th to 2,268th on Amazon’s bestseller list when it was spotted in photographs of Tiger Woods’ wrecked SUV after his affair-related accident in 2009. Why anyone was thinking about how much they’d like to read like Tiger Woods at that moment is unclear.

Edwardian fiction, generally

Then there are the books that take off because there’s nothing else to watch on TV — or, rather, because readers are really dying for another hit of something specific. In recent memory, that’s Downton Abbey, which has kicked up sales of classic books like Brideshead Revisited, Parade’s End, and The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. But don’t worry, it’s only until the new season airs.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Perhaps it’s not that surprising, but book sales can also be affected by the author’s extra-curricular activities. After Hilary Mantel made some controversial comments about the royal family — particularly one beloved Kate Middleton — sales of her 2009 novel Wolf Hall, the prequel to her more recent hit Bring Up the Bodies, blew up overnight. According to Time , the book rose from 15th place to seventh place on Amazon, up 200%, compared with just the previous day. Sales of Bring Up the Bodies also jumped 69%.

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson

Sales of biographies tend to spike when their subjects die — for obvious reasons. But when Steve Jobs passed away, pre-sales of Walter Isaacson’s biography climbed by an absurd 41,800% on Amazon, securing the book’s #1 spot for weeks to come.

A Night to Remember, Walter Lord

A big anniversary can also help. Last April was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, and as if to mark the occasion, a classic 1955 book on the topic, A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, shot to the top of the New York Times combined print and eBook nonfiction bestseller chart.