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What 100 years of book sales tells us about human nature

We have lists of best sellers that go back nearly 100 years. Recently, Amazon released data from it's Kindle reader. How have tastes changed in the intervening years? How have they remained the same?

Modern advertising is 100 years old

In 1903, Albert Lasker became a partner at the Lord and Thomas agency and put out a challenge - he wanted to find someone who could define advertising for him. Albert started out as a reporter and he believed advertising was news about products. In 1904 a man named John E. Kennedy sent word that he knew what advertising was, and his definition was Salesmanship in print. To this day, modified only slightly by our multimedia world to Multiplied salesmanship, this is our definition of advertising.

We now stand at the edge of a new century of advertising. What have we learned? What has changed? What hasn't changed? Are consumers motivated by the same thing now that they were 100 years ago? Let's dig in to my library and see what we can turn up.

Today we turn our attention to books - what sold 100 years ago and what sells today, and what they can tell us about the changing world we live in.

What People Read in 1927

most interesting of all was the psychology of Haldeman-Julius's customers, the American people. In a country where The Saturday Evening Post has the greatest mass appeal I was surprised to hear that sex seems to interest the public more than any other one subject. Secondly, the public wanted self-help: how to order chicken a la King, how to learn Spanish, how to play the saxophone, how to spell correctly. I learned that in California books the occult have a tremendous vogue, that love interest in literature is most profitable in the solid south. Here, then, was a man who has sold a hundred million five-cent books - not via wholesalers and retailers but direct to the American public. He has corresponded directly with his customers, manufactured their books, accepted their nickels, shipped them packages; he has heard their complaints and knows what they want and how they want it. It seemed to me that if any one man had conducted a laboratory of American intellectual taste, Haldeman-Julius was it.

In 1927 E. Haldeman-Julius published the book The First Hundred Million, which chronicled the sale of the first 100,000,000 copies of his "little blue books". I've scoured the pages of the book and compiled nearly 700 titles with sales figures.

The top selling books are all about sex. Such as Prostitution in the Modern World (129,500 copies) and Women's Sexual Life (97,500 copies) and just in case you thought nobody was interested in the men, Man's Sexual Life sold 78,500 copies.

In fact the top 9 best selling titles are about sex and 15 of the top 20 best selling titles are about sex. 36 of the top 50 titles are about either sex or marriage. So, you may ask, what are these other titles about? What is the second most interesting topic after sex? It may or may not surprise you to know that it's self improvement.

How to Improve Your Conversation (77,000 copies), Success Easier Than Failure (77,000 copies), How to Improve Your Vocabulary (76,000 copies), Care of Skin and Hair (52,000 copies), and Hints on Public Speaking (46,500 copies) top the non-sex charts.

Some other popular self improvement books include How to Psycho-Analyze Yourself (43,000), How to Talk and Debate (38,500), Psycho-Analysis Explained (38,500), Facts about Will Power (38,500), Your Memory and How to Improve it (37,000), The Secret of Self-Improvement (36,000), Your Talent and How to Develop It (35,500), How to be Happy Though Married (35,000), Psychology for Beginners (35,000), How to Argue Logically (33,000), Psychology of Leadership (32,000), The Art of Happiness (31,000, etc. etc.

Though the titles have gotten more clever of the past hundred years, the topics are as relevant today as they were back then. For proof, let's turn to Amazon's Kindle, which not only gives you books in minutes, but also gives you insights into what passages within the books the readers are finding interesting.

What People Read in 2010

Amazon has released a selection of the most highlighted passages on the Kindle. These are the most popular highlighted passages as of May 9, 2009.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

... three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying

... Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

... if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.

... Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.

... Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

... Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.

... Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.

The Shack by William P. Young

... Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions. Most emotions are responses to perception—what you think is true about a given situation. If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too. So check your perceptions, and beyond that check the truthfulness of your paradigms—what you believe. Just because you believe something firmly doesn’t make it true.

... Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.

... Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself—to serve.

... Trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved. Because you do not know that I love you, you cannot trust me.

... To force my will on you,” Jesus replied, “is exactly what love does not do. Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful or healthy.”

... “You must give up your right to decide what is good and evil on your own terms. That is a hard pill to swallow; choosing to only live in me. To do that you must know me enough to trust me and learn to rest in my inherent goodness.”

... Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.”

Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

... WHAT WE HAVE DONE FOR OURSELVES ALONE DIES WITH US; WHAT WE HAVE DONE FOR OTHERS AND THE WORLD REMAINS AND IS IMMORTAL.

... That which is impenetrable to us really exists. Behind the secrets of nature remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.’

... “Living consciousness somehow is the influence that turns the possibility of something into something real. The most essential ingredient in creating our universe is the consciousness that observes it.”

... The religion of the future, Einstein had predicted, will be a cosmic religion. It will transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology

... The Apotheosis of Washington—a 4,664-square-foot fresco that covers the canopy of the Capitol Rotunda—was completed in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi.

... “A wise man once told me,” Peter said, his voice faint now, “the only difference between you and God is that you have forgotten you are divine.”

Have a Little Faith: A True Story by Mitch Albom

... “My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our faith, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of ‘I could have, I should have.’ We can sleep in a storm.

... “Be satisfied.” That’s it? “Be grateful.” That’s it? “For what you have. For the love you receive. And for what God has given you.”

... So, have we solved the secret of happiness? “I believe so,” he said. Are you going to tell me? “Yes. Ready?” Ready. “Be satisfied.

... “Oh yes. It is far more comforting to think God listened and said no, than to think that nobody’s out there.”

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

... “When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.”

... EXPERIENCE IS what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

... The brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

... Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

... “Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”

... Geranium niveum is the Tarahumara wonder drug; according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, it’s as effective as red wine at neutralizing disease-causing free radicals. As one writer put it, wild geranium is “anti-everything—anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antioxidant.”

... “Anything the Tarahumara eat, you can get very easily,” Tony told me. “It’s mostly pinto beans, squash, chili peppers, wild greens, pinole, and lots of chia. And pinole isn’t as hard to get as you think.” Nativeseeds.org sells it online, along with heritage seeds in case you want to grow your own corn and whiz up some homemade pinole in a coffee grinder.

... “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and turns into a racket.”

... The way to activate your fat-burning furnace is by staying below your aerobic threshold—your hard-breathing point—during your endurance runs.

... the only way to truly conquer something, as every great philosopher and geneticist will tell you, is to love it.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

... The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”

Getting Things Done by David Allen

... We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we choose to (5) do.

... 1 | Every open loop must be in your collection system and out of your head. 2 | You must have as few collection buckets as you can get by with. 3 | You must empty them regularly.

... 1 | Defining purpose and principles 2 | Outcome visioning 3 | Brainstorming 4 | Organizing 5 | Identifying next actions

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows

... “Is it so small a thing to have enjoyed the sun, to have lived light in the spring, to have loved, to have thought, to have done, to have advanced true friends?”

... That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive—all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.

... I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, David Oliver Relin

... Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”

... “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die,” he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson’s own. “Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.”

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

... venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

... So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin

... “Happiness,” wrote Yeats, “is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”

... To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right.

Dear John by Nicholas Sparks

... Passion and satisfaction go hand in hand, and without them, any happiness is only temporary, because there’s nothing to make it last.

Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin

... It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again...

... the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

... Such a simple concept, yet so true: that which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.

SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

... Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining immediate feedback; and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

Excuses Begone!: How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

... I am much more powerful today than the old programs and mind viruses that I absorbed in my childhood.

... What I desire is already here; I just haven't connected to it yet. It can't be stopped because my thoughts are aligned with the mind or intellect of God.

Olive Kitteridge: Fiction by Elizabeth Strout

... And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.

Drive by Daniel H. Pink

... Type I behavior emerges when people have autonomy over the four T’s: their task, their time, their technique, and their team.

... The essential requirement: Any extrinsic reward should be unexpected and offered only after the task is complete.

... Goals may cause systematic problems for organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behavior, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased intrinsic motivation. Use care when applying goals in your organization.

Alchemist - 10th Anniversary Edition, The by Paulo, Coelho

... “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

... AVOID FOOD PRODUCTS CONTAINING INGREDIENTS THAT ARE A) UNFAMILIAR, B) UNPRONOUNCEABLE, C) MORE THAN FIVE IN NUMBER, OR THAT INCLUDE D) HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

... It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

 

In 1927 people were buying books about success, happiness, and health care. In 2010, people are still reading quite a bit about self help, happiness and health care. Let's take a closer look at the quotes and see if we can get any universal lessons from them.

The #1 most common word in those quotes is "you" (appears 51 times), "your" appears 24 times for a total of 75 occurrences. By comparison I (18) and me (8) occur only half as many times. We (25) and Our (13) occur a bit more, but still not as many as you/your.

Here's a complete list of any word or phrase that appears more than twice (~150 words/phrases). The sample is skewed a bit by having just a few books (surely the word "pinole" being so high in our list is a little bit of a fluke).

Happiness (5) + Happy (2) figures pretty high on our list, and though the wording may be different in each book, I'd say self actualization figures pretty high in the list too. God (6) is also pretty important. The phrase "you must" (5) also figures pretty highly. From this are we to assume that people enjoy being told what to do?

you 51   happiness 5   to be 3
have 25   but 5   2 3
we 25   DONE 5   give 3
your 24   power 5   to the 3
I 18   man 5   WHAT WE 3
will 14   them 5   4 3
our 13   what you 5   OURSELVES 3
own 12   TRUE 5   1 3
than 9   you are 5   all 3
me 9   mind 5   For what 3
my 8   of the 4   just 3
never 7   Relationships 4   I can't 3
because 7   feeling 4   believe 3
must 7   share 4   perception 3
it is 7   nor 4   Three Cups of Tea 3
So 7   is the 4   his 3
work 7   way 4   goals 3
we are 7   out 4   even 3
do 7   Every 4   book 3
thing 7   To do 4   reason 3
love 7   given 4   Trust 3
only 7   right 4   And for 3
to have 7   can't 4   enough 3
had 7   suffering 4   harder 3
more 7   things 4   that I 3
time 7   know 4   could 3
something 7   at the 4   of a 3
in the 7   have done 4   time you 3
one 7   said 4   and the 3
hard 7   That's 4   family 3
about 7   of Tea 4   preparation 3
three 6   most 4   once 3
think 6   to think 3   does 3
make 6   3 3   food 3
God 6   been 3   should 3
there 6   want 3   avoid 3
he 6   your own 3   will be 3
has 6   in a 3   we have 3
up 6   it's 3   religion 3
Tea 6   pinole 3   That's it 3
get 6   cause 3   you have 3
Their 5   tell 3   for a 3
Us 5   good 3   she 3
how 5   hand 3   with the 3
You must 5   way to 3   into 3
can 5   die 3   may 3
anything 5   great 3   beyond 3
is to 5   you can 3   is not 3
much 5   of your 3   another 3
is a 5   very 3   after 3
people 5   find 3      

What an analysis of the most popular TED talks turns up

Sebastian Wernicke has done a brilliant analysis of some of the best (and worst) TED talks and has come up with a list of the 10 words that appeared most frequently in the highest rated TED talks. He's also come up with a list of the words that appeared most frequently in the lowest rated TED talks.

Again "You" and "Happiness" figure very highly.

Good Words Bad Words
  1. You
  2. Happiness
  3. Brain
  4. French
  5. Coffee
  6. Mirror
  7. Choice
  8. Patient
  9. Data
  10. Middle
  1. So
  2. Oxygen
  3. Aircraft
  4. Projects
  5. Girls
  6. Feet
  7. Building
  8. Problem
  9. Computer
  10. Design

The most popular talks feature, he says, topics that we can connect with both easily and deeply, and the more technical talks are rated worse.

Happiness, People, Know edge, Thought and Psychology, Food, Ethics, Anatomy, Choices and Strategies, Belief and religion, and Emotions

Business, Success & Failure, Sports

Architecture, Weather, Materials, Geography, Men, Transportation, War, Media, Animals and Plants, Time

He also analyzed the best & worst 4 word phrases.

"You don't have to" "Thank you very much" "The same that" "of the United States" "I'll give you" "I would like to" "You look at the" "et cetera et cetera" "How many of you" "All of a sudden"

"You're going to" "the New York Times" "now you're even" "I'm here to" "to make sure that" "What I can't have" "I don't understand" "in the United States" "got all the answers" "I don't have to"

He released a tool that pulls sentences from the various popular (and unpopular) TED talks called the tedPAD. It's a fun, nonsensical (my favorite kind of sensical) romp through ~150 great and ~150 horrible sentences, that all probably seemed great to the speaker as they were preparing for their speech.

Times change, people don't

So what conclusions can be drawn from all this? In brief - times change, people don't. The concerns of your grandparents aren't too far removed from your own concerns - happiness, self-fulfillment, social status, job satisfaction, having a sense of purpose, and understanding the human mind. These are all things that were just as relevant 100 years ago as they are today.

Next time you see a book that's on the best seller list - ask yourself, would that book or it's equivalent be on the best seller list 100 years ago? People back then were just as interested in money, "insider stories" and what makes us tick as we are today. Science and technology are advancing at an ever increasing rate - my grandmother who passed away a few years ago was born before the common use of electricity, radio, automobiles. She lived through two world-wars, a great depression, and the social rights movement. We're similarly seeing an incredible amount of change in the world. I was born before the common use of the internet, cell phones (how did we ever manage to get together before cell phones?) and the first Black President took office.

All of this change in the world, yet we remain fundamentally the same. We have the same hopes & dreams, the same fear. If you want to know what will be successful today, tomorrow, or 100 years from now, you needn't look any further than the current best seller list.

Further Reading


May 9, 2009


© Mark Wieczorek