The Not-So-Big Garden Bestseller List


Not_so_big According to an article on their site, architect Sarah Susanka is the bestselling home and garden author, with her "Not So Big House" series selling over 60,000 copies in 2005.  (That represents combined sales of her six books on the subject of scaling it down, one of which is about gardening.)

Now, we won’t even get into the fact that a new Janet Evanovich novel will sell more than 60,000 copies in a week, much less a year.  And let’s not parse Ms. Susanka’s sales figures too closely, either, or we will be forced to conclude that, even if she is getting a high royalty rate of 15% of the cover price (unlikely in a book with so many photographs), and even if the cover price averages $25 (although paperbacks sell for less), she earned about $37,500 for each of her titles last year.  Now, you can play around with those numbers all day long, and point out that she’s probably doing well as an architect, a speaker, and a consultant, but the bottom line is that as the #1 bestselling home and garden author, she’s not living the luxe Danielle Steele lifestyle.

(And I should add that it is generally believed that these figured undercount sales at independent bookstores, which account for roughly 10% of consumer spending on books, but we all know that’s the most intelligent 10%.)

Botany_of_desire We also learn that Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire is the #1 bestselling book on their Gardening chart right now, but for 2005 overall, it ranked sixth, selling 16,000 copies for the year (and bringing him around $20,000 in royalties). Another bestseller is the Sunset Western Landscaping Book, which has sold over 21,000 copies since its re-issue in January 2006.

Right now, the top three books on the Garden chart are Pollan’s book, followed by a book called 1001 All-Natural Secrets To a Pest-Free Property (published not by a regular publishing house but, it seems, by Allstar Marketing Group LLC, giving it a real "as seen on TV" feel) and, in third place, the Sunset Garden Book.Sunsetbook

And here’s an interesting tidbit.  It’s not worded very clearly, so we’ll reprint it here:  "Random House, incidentally, had reason to celebrate 2005—the company publishes more Home and Garden books than any other; more than 490,000 of 566 different titles."  If that means that they sold more than 490,000 copies of 566 titles, that works out to 866 copies sold of each title.

Other facts:

  • Better Homes & Gardens is one of the top "brands" in garden books
  • Regional Gardening is the bestselling Garden category, with strong sales for books on the South.
  • Authors who keep shaking that envelope hoping a larger royalty check will fall out can take heart:  "Top sellers become classics, and classics remain champions. You ascend to the top of Home and Garden, you’re probably going to stay there a while."  Enjoy that twenty grand a year, you bestsellers.

So what does this mean?  Are gardeners readers?  Do readers garden?  Is Gen X ruining everything with their iPods and text messaging?  And–is there a place for more lively, opinionated, interesting garden writing–like Pollan–in this tide of how-to books? 

Tune in soon for Part Two:  The Garden Booksellers.


  1. We have a whole wall of garden books at the nursery, which we use regularly. The titles would bore most people, but are indispensable in our work. Most are from Timberwood press. . Titles like Peonies by Allan Rogers, Conifers by D.M. van Gelderen and J.R.P. van Hoey Smith, Japanese Maples by J.D. Vertrees, and The Gardeners Guide to Growing Hostas by Diana Grenfell. If you don’t recognize any of the authors I am not surprised. These people have a following in horticulture, but will never have mainstream appeal.

    I checked out the description of Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” and came to this, “After all, who doesn’t yearn for a landscape that is as well designed as the interior of their home?” I don’t. My house is not well designed. We live at the nursery and the house is a pre-1960’s place that could use a lot of work. The house is quite livable, but not well designed. While I have not read the book, it turned me off with that statement.

    I hate to say it, but I just don’t see the garden book department starting any fires. The reference books we have on our shelves are not going to excite the general public. I do think there is room for garden books that are “more lively, opinionated, interesting garden writing–like Pollan”(s), but a best seller?

    I don’t think Gen X is ruining things with there I Pods and text messaging. It’s the older generations that have learned to use the computer, and have the expendable income and time to purchase garden books, that are turning to the internet. I learn more about real gardens, and gardeners from bloggers, than I would from Sarah Susanka.

    The way to success in garden books is to pick a narrow niche, let’s say the business of floriculture, and focus on the market that is already interested in what you have to say. They will run to buy your book, and better they will tell their friends to buy the book.

  2. I’m with Trey on this. Those Better Homes and Gardens books are full of generic advice that, even to me as a beginner, isn’t really helpful because the situations you find yourself in are never generic.

    I have books like the slender version of Bryan on Bulbs, and Dr. DG Hessayon on houseplants, Barbara Damrosch’s two books, and I’ve had my eye on Tracy DiSabato-Aust but haven’t managed to get it yet.

    So where I learn the most about plants these days is usually university horticulture sites and specialty nursery sites on the Internet. Places like Select Seeds, Wildflower Garden, White Oak Nursery, Tripple Brook Farm, Edible Landscaping, and McClure and Zimmerman — they know the most about the plants, and they seem to have real interest in their customers’ success so they’re willing to put real information out there too. You can’t find anything about trout lily or Mexican shell flower in Better Homes and Gardens.

    I also pester the local nursery by calling up and asking questions like, my elderberry froze to the ground last winter — is it dead?? They’re always willing to talk about plants and give advice, and just last weekend I scored 10 things I was looking for there without having to click with a mouse once.

  3. Trey and firefly have just about nailed it. Though I began digging in earnest only a few months ago, I’ve been obsessively collecting hort books since moving in with my garden-owning boyfriend (now husband) four years ago.

    Though I’ll probably hold onto the several near-useless guides and how-to’s I’ve amassed, I’ll most likely never buy another one. What with the profusion of free online references, the only hort and garden books I see myself acquiring in the future are those from the likes of Timber Press, plus those, like Amy’s and Michael Pollan’s, that combine serious research, insightful pondering, and delightful prose. Sometimes just the delightful prose is enough (see My Favorite Plant, edited by Jamaica Kincaid).

    One of the few really useful how-to’s in my gardening section is Ken Druse’s Making More Plants, whose prohibitive price you can offset by forcing the lovely volume to moonlight as a coffee table book, if you are anal enough to maintain a coffee table.

  4. On Susan’s recommendation, I bought the newly released expanded edition of Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s perennials book. But that’s only the second reference book I’ve bought in two years, mostly because the first one (a guide to perennials by somebody, can’t remember) was fine for starting up but too generic, too un-Southern, frankly, to be much use to me. Plus, I’ve never had a gardening question that didn’t get answered with a search on GardenWeb (or at least, it led me to other sites that had the answers). Why spend $30 on a static resource when you can have a dynamic one?

    That being said, I yearn for more garden essayists, which is why particular types of garden bloggers appeal to me so much. I want a slice of YOUR LIFE in the garden. I don’t care what you grow, I want to know about your experience of growing it. I’m not much of a fiction reader, but find my place in the real life stories around gardening and travel (oh, if only Bill Bryson would take up gardening…)

  5. Who needs Bill Bryson when we have Karel Capek (The Gardener’s Year)? or Steve Bender and Felder Rushing (Passalong Plants)?

    Want to read about someone else’s garden? In addition to Henry Mitchell, try Elizabeth Lawrence (A Southern Garden). Or Emily Whaley (Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden). Or Helena Rutherford (A Woman’s Hardy Garden). Midge Ellis Keeble (Tottering in My Garden). Tovah Martin (Tasha Tudor’s Garden). Elizabeth von Arnim (Elizabeth and Her German Garden). Celia Thaxter (An Island Garden).

    How about a memoir about an entire gardening family–the family who developed the ‘Peace’ rose. (For the Love of a Rose)?

    And here I’m just scratching the surface of the stack of books I own. Click through if you want some more recommendations.

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