On 1 December the Scotsman ran an article by Danuta Kean (linked to by booktrade.info) about the current state of the bestseller lists. Unfortunately, you have to register to get access to it today.
Incidentally, and not that it's particularly relevant except for the proofreaders and pedants among you, the classic text on big-selling books refers to them as 'best sellers' -- two words. (80 Years of Best Sellers, by Alice Payne Hackett.) The Oxford Concise uses a hyphen, best-sellers, as does the Scotsman, and I use one word, bestsellers. So does the Daily Telegraph. You can take your pick.)
Danuta Kean is, I believe, a freelance journalist, and will doubtless conjure up an article out of the slimmest materials, and good luck to her. Her piece in the Scotsman includes both useful information and some unrealistic conclusions which I doubt whether even she really believes, because she's much too well informed.
First, she quotes us some actual figures for sales of books, as reported by Nielsen Bookscan. Such figures are not all that often reported in the press, largely, I suspect, because subscribers to Bookscan have to pay a hell of a lot of money for the data, and they naturally don't pass it on for free. Anway, the lovely Danuta tells us that Jon Snow's memoirs have sold about 9,000 copies. Since HarperCollins are reported to have paid an advance of £600,000 for the book, this is what you might call a flop.
There are other flops in recent months too. Greg Dyke's book on the Iraq row (£500,000 paid, again by HarperCollins) has sold 6,000, and Rageh Omaar's book, also on Iraq, has managed 16,000 copies for another £600,000 investment, this time by Penguin.
Actually we knew the broad outlines of these situations before, but it does no harm to be reminded.
By contrast, Danuta points out that some of the smaller publishers have recently had some unexpected hits. She quotes the autobiography of Katie Price, aka Jordan, the many books of Alexander McCall Smith, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and so forth.
All of this, Danuta suggests, constitutes 'a reversal of the natural laws of publishing'. Well yes. And then again, no.
The article has earned Danuta a few guineas, and I don't begrudge her that, but nothing has changed. For at least thirty years, and probably longer, publishers have been paying out large sums of money for books which they thought would be sure-fire bestsellers, only to find that the public made loud raspberry noises when actually confronted with the product.
Equally, there have been countless times in the past when a book, bought for tuppence ha'penny, suddenly took off and started to sell in vast numbers, catching the publisher completely cold. Danuta mentions the famous case of the first Harry Potter book, which can never be mentioned too often for it remains a lesson to us all. (Incidentally, and again this is of interest only to real publishing groupies, Danuta says that the book was rejected by 20 publishers, which is a higher figure than I have seen before, and describes the advance paid as £3000; previous figures which have appeared in reasonably reliable places have been £2000 and £2500.)
I don't know about you, but I have largely lost interest in the bestseller lists. Most bestsellers these days are manufactured by the time-honoured (and often effective) methods of pouring lots of money into advertising, getting the book featured on Richard and Judy, getting it reviewed in high places, planting stories in gossip columns, et cetera. By and large, the only people with the money and other resources to do all this are the big firms. Little firms, generally speaking, don't have a hope. Unless, of course, their author happens to be Jordan; she, for some reason which I am too old to understand, seems to have the knack of getting her picture in the newspapers without the publisher having to pay for the space.
Self-publishers please note. Despite the sudden spate of articles (including another one by Danuta) telling us that self-publishing is a quick way to a small fortune, it ain't gonna happen. Stop dreaming.