Every year since 1979, the Guardian has published an annual list of the 100 bestselling books in the UK. This is not such a vital tool for writers as it once was, but it nevertheless repays study and can teach us some valuable lessons.
In the early days, the list was drawn up by Alex Hamilton, and it was confined to paperbacks. What you have to remember -- or perhaps learn for the first time -- is that, until fairly recently, reliable sales figures for books in the UK were very hard to come by. Even within a given company, precise figures for the sales of individual books were closely guarded secrets.
True, there were some published 'bestseller lists', but only of a sort. Typically, the broadsheet newspapers would produce a weekly list, but this would often be based on returns from as few as half a dozen bookshops in central London. Rumour has it that, when rung up for the week's figures, the manager would typically put his head out of the office door, take note of what he was left with a big pile of, and then name that book as the number one hit, in the hope that the publicity would shift some slow-moving stock for him.
This was the private and secretive world of misinformation and half truths in which Alex Hamilton began to dabble. Somehow or other, however, he managed to establish a tradition whereby it was considered very bad form to lie to him: so his annual list of big sellers became an unusually interesting and reliable source of information.
Nowadays of course, we have Nielsen Bookscan; or at least some of us do, if we pay the massive subscription. Bookscan provides accurate point-of-sale data to the trade as a whole. So you can't hide any longer. It's no good publisher A claiming that the ghosted autobiography by Felicity Fancypants is 'doing really well' when his competitor, Publisher B, can see perfectly well that you couldn't give it away to wrap chips in.
Somewhere around 1990, I rang up Alex Hamilton and asked him if there was any way to get a complete set of his annual lists. There wasn't. But in any case, he said, it doesn't matter, because the pattern is always broadly the same.
What he meant was this. His list essentially dealt with fast sellers, and indeed was labelled as such. Steady sellers, such as the classical works of fiction, or the Bible, which sell year in and year out, and the total sales of which are huge, do not figure.
Within this limited context, of books which sell a large number of copies within a given year, the majority are always fiction, with a smattering of diet books, the odd celebrity memoir, and so forth. The top 20 sellers or so are normally very familiar names. Jilly Cooper, for example, will aways be there, if she's published anything. Indeed the surest way to get yourself on the list at all is to have been there before, because with that sort of track record the publisher will put some weight behind you. And, of course, as ever, you have little chance of getting on to the list unless you're published by one of the top four or five firms.
Now let's have a look at this year's list, which is compiled by John Dugdale. The list itself is available as a PDF, though if you try to print it out the type is microscopic.
There's a commentary to go with it. This makes clear, if you were in any doubt, the impact of the Richard and Judy TV show. The point is also made that women are now much more successful than they used to be: in the early days of the list, the balance of author gender was two thirds male and one third female. And, quite an important change I think, we now have some (heavily discounted) hardbacks figuring high on the list.
Top of the pile for 2006 is Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse. That's Mosse with an e, please note; she ain't the one who hangs with Pete Doherty.
Number 3 is Marina Lewycka, with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, recognised here, I'm pleased to say, as a book with legs even before it began its huge climb in numbers.
Peter Kay has amazingly achieved the number 4 spot, with the hardback of his autobiography, The Sound of Laughter.
Number 9 is a book I've never heard of: My Best Friend's Girl, by Dorothy Koomson, but presumably that's because I don't fit into the book's target demographic. It appears to be what used to be called a weepie.
And -- deep sigh -- Sam Bourne's The Righteous Men comes in at number 13, with 421,397 sold. OK, OK, I admit it, through gritted teeth. Someone must have enjoyed the book, and recommended it to their friends. But it wasn't me.
Number 26 was something called The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury. This appears to be a thriller, but Amazon doesn't even give us a two-line summary of the plot, so gods know how it has made its mark. Presumably on the back of the Da Vinci thing. Orion probably shifted it through Tesco.
Kathy O'Beirne, despite the controversy, sold 265,784, and this via a smallish Edinburgh-based publisher, albeit one which is 50% owned by Random House.
The Highway Code appears at 52, thus reminding us of the boring bits of publishing which everyone takes for granted but which are, in fact, among the few reliable earners in the field.
Speaking of reliable earners, Josephine Cox comes in at 58, with Journey's End. She's always there somewhere, usually with two books. In 1996, for example, Josephine Cox's Living a Lie was placed 44th, and The Devil You Know came 48th. (Total sales 414,000 copies.)
I said at the beginning that the Guardian list can often teach us some valuable lessons, and the Josephine Cox saga is one. She doesn't get reviewed; she just gets bought, and read, and thus pays the wages of half the people in the book trade, most of whom don't deign to notice her.
Here's a quote from a rare review of a Cox book (Living a Lie) in the Times. The heading was 'Truth to tell, it stinks.' The reviewer began by saying 'I want to be nice. I want to say that it does not matter that the title is hammy, the characters mere ciphers and the writing laboured and superficial. I want to say that I quite enjoyed this book despite all that. But I cannot, because I did not.'
'Cox's prose is simpering, wishy-washy and full of monstrous cliches.' Ms Cox, says the reviewer, has produced a 'simplistic fairy-tale. That is fine if you like them, and thousands do; which makes it pretty irrelevant that I do not.' Quite.
We would be lost, would we not, if good old-fashioned English snobbery died out?
Which reminds me of a similar tale. I write from memory here, without the relevant list in front of me, but the story dates from ten or twelve years ago, and it goes like this.
Martin Amis published a novel for which he was, depending on who you believe, paid an advance of £450,000 or £500,000. This novel and the accompanying interviews, puff pieces and so forth, generated about 10,000 column inches of broadsheet space, an interview with Lord Bragg of Tele, and much more. The usual publicity machine in action.
Come the end of the year in which the paperback of this epic appeared, and where was Marty? Answer, he staggered into the Guardian list at number 97.
But the best bit was this. He was defeated from rising to the 96th position by Mary Jane Staples, with a clogs and shawl saga aimed at the supermarket crowd.
This was a result which put a smile on my face for a solid week.
But hold. What's that I hear you say? You're telling me that, is a result of giving Marty a thorough trouncing, Mary Jane was thus able to negotiate a £500,000 advance for her own next book?
Now you're just being silly.