Follow up on the state of the book market

I was reading the DMR Books blog post REVIEW: Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs by John Taliaferro, and I stumbled on this gem. It is another fascinating data point on the state of the book market.

Like many Americans, ERB had read the pulps, especially the bestselling mags like Argosy. Taliaferro estimates that, at that time, one in three Americans read them.

Let’s put that in context. In 1910, the US Census reported a population of 92,228,496. One third of that would be about 31 million people. Today, that would be like an audience of 110 million. Can you even imagine a magazine or book avidly ready by 110 million people?

This is of course across all the pulp magazines, rather than any one title, but a best-selling book today rarely breaches 1 million sales in a year. If we look at competitors that didn’t exist in 1910, a really popular AAA videogame might ship 20 million units, which is at least getting in the ballpark. A really popular movie [which did exist in 1910] is probably the closest thing right now. If we try to estimate something like “watches” out of the domestic box office from something like Top Gun: Maverick, I think 35-40 million viewings.

But on the other hand, books sold pretty well in 1910 too. Numbers are not readily available. I did find this about Florence L. Barclay, who wrote The Rosary, the best-selling novel of 1910. If you just multiplied the total sales by four, you could get a rough estimate of what that would be now. Not quite J. K. Rowling numbers, but I think just about any author would be satisfied with that performance.