New York vs. San Francisco: Who Tops the Bestseller Lists

Since I was headed to New York for a quick trip anyway, with McNally Jackson on my to-do list, why not drop in and observe the scene, or better yet, request their own list? Always game, Sarah McNally fashioned a list of her own for the time period, supplying me with 10 titles in each category.

The results proved decisive: Out of 20 titles, only five appeared on both lists, but never in the same place. I was surprised, but Paul Yamazaki, the book buyer for City Lights, was not. "That makes sense," he casually replied to my findings.

McNally Jackson Bestselling Hardcovers:

  1. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books)

  2. NW by Zadie Smith (Penguin)

  3. Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie (Random House)

  4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Random House)

  5. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Harper Collins)

  6. Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Little Brown & Co.)

  7. New York Drawings by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly)

  8. How Music Works by David Byrne (McSweeney's)

  9. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (Grand Central)

  10. Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young (Penguin Group)

Bestselling Paperbacks:

  1. We the Animals by Justin Torres (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

  2. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Random House)

  3. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Picador)

  4. Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon (Workman)

  5. Object Lessons by the Paris Review (Picador)

  6. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling (Crown)

  7. Just Kids by Patti Smith (Harper Collins)

  8. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (Thorndike)

  9. Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso)

  10. China in Ten Words by Yu Hua (Knopf Doubleday)

I pressed further, revisiting the moment I was othered in what Derrida would surely call the violence of the naming, or in this case, the lack thereof. Where is Zadie Smith, I asked, piling on additional McNally Jackson titles in lockstep with national trends, including Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling.

zadie smith.jpg

"Zadie's book doesn't have a particular staff advocate, which makes a big difference here. We didn't buy Gone Girl in hardcover, but we will carry it in paperback," Yamazaki continued, accounting for every discrepancy I posed. City Lights is comparably smaller than McNally Jackson, and they tend to have more space for paperback backlist than hardcover frontlist.

What of J.K. Rowlings's first adult novel? "We don't carry Casual Vacancy. We have the privilege of being economically sustainable even though we hesitate to carry books that have large print runs, the kind of book you can find almost anywhere else. We think our mission is a little bit different."

we-the-animals-by-justin-torres.jpg

Geography plays a role, but perhaps more so for booksellers and authors than readers. "We pay a lot of attention to quality work no matter where it comes from, and New York is New York. They don't look quite as far or wide," he reasoned. There are exceptions to the rule, but the only consistent one is McSweeney's, though one can easily argue that Dave Eggars established himself as a preeminent writer edited by large New York publishing houses before he started his own. Authors appeal to one region over another, which is at least part of the reason Telegraph Avenue by Berkeley resident Michael Chabon tops City Light's list, but comes in fifth at McNally Jackson. Likewise, We the Animals by Justin Torres, a Stegner fellow at Stanford (2010-2012) who still enjoys more notoriety on the East Coast, is McNally Jackson's bestselling paperback, but numbers nine at City Lights, perilously close to falling off the list.

Ferlinghetti has always paid attention to small presses and local publishers, which certainly influenced the disparate lists, but the owner's priorities extend to the greater Bay Area community. City Lights does not treat their historical landmark as a mecca for writers (published or not) and book enthusiasts, consistently venturing out to engage the community. They readily profess love and admiration for Litquake, and name the Porchlight storytelling series as a favorite.

"They push us towards local writers, and in turn they ask people to support us," Yamazaki mused. True to form, upon finishing his assessment, the book buyer had just one question in return: "What do you think?"

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