Tuesday, January 02, 2007

UK fast/bestsellers of 2006

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.


Susan Hill said...

Yes, this list is always pure joy as it shows what people really really buy and read and love. You may remember when the very first PLR list was made public.. every single author earning the top whack (it`s capped at £6,000) was either Jeffrey Archer, Jilly Cooper, or a Romantic Novelist no one had ever heard of except the people who loyally borrowed read and loved in droves. These lists do not prove that GREAT LITERATURE is not popular, they prove that the latest snob-hype literary novel is not. The greats, from Dickens to Dostoievsky, can take care of themselves, as can Josephine Cox et al, who need neither reviewers nor bloggers - they just have readers. Catherine Cookson was the perfect example.

Iain said...

A general point about sales figures. I presently have a non-fiction book in the hands of a reputable New York agent, who, having liked the sample material, gave me her requirements for a proposal to be put to publishers.

And what I learned was that: SALES AND MARKETING ARE EVERYTHING. I spent countless hours trying to find examples of books even vaguely similar to mine which had enjoyed some sort of success (i.e. had made money). Staggeringly difficult if you're not prepared to pay Bookscan a large sum of money to tell you. Yes, you can now find out the very biggest sellers, but not much else.

(As it happens, my agent now has access to Bookscan, so I can just give her the titles and she can tell me how they've done.)

I don't doubt that publishers could come up with a hundred thousand reasons for being so coy about figures, but the real reason is clear: if they admit that a title isn't selling . . . then it won't sell. Nothing, as they don't say, fails like failure.

An interesting illustration is to be found in my local library in west London. There has been for two or three years now a section entitled Bestsellers. Well, to my certain knowledge, some of these 'bestsellers' have been absolute turkeys -- Norman Lamont's memoirs come to mind. I asked a staff member how the books were chosen. She told me that the library asks publishers to tell them which are their biggest sellers. God help us.

Back to my point that sales and marketing are everything. Don't think it was ever thus, because it wasn't. Go back just a generation, and publishing was still, in its essence, an amateurish business. The likes of Victor Gollancz (to go back just a bit further) stamped their own personalities firmly on their houses, and, in many if not all cases, genuinely cared about things other than the bottom line.

No doubt they cared about sales figures -- otherwise, they might have gone out of business -- but I doubt if any author of a book intended for the mass market was ever required to do his or her own detailed market analysis.

I'm not suggesting that this was a golden age. But I wish that someone somewhere would decide to publish something for no better reason than that he or she liked it so much.

You see, that just can't happen in today's major publishing houses, because all decisions are made by committee, with sales and marketing always holding the real power.

As long as this remains the case, everyone will be obsessed with sales figures, and publishers will continue to guard them jealously, and stick pins into little wax images of those who reveal them.

Here's a thought. At one time, nobody except publishers and authors had any clear idea of how a book was doing unless it became really famous. So how did people decide what to buy? It can only have been genuine word-of-mouth recommendation. Yet everybody who reads today knows which are the BIG SELLERS -- and may well buy for that reason alone. And, as we all know, what this means is that, if a clever agent can just find a way of . . . well, of getting a book onto Richard and Judy, then its sales figures will rocket, and . . .

Well . . . Oh, to hell with it. I've had enough. I wish to God I had a bottle of whisky in the house.

Clive Keeble said...

UK's bookchains, in particular little w (will they go the same way as the chef?) with their central buying and product control are failing to stock many really fantastic titles : lists such as that in the Guardian are further evidence of how marketing matters as compared to content.

Dobby said...

Getting a book (non-fiction in my case) past marketing and sales can be an art in itself. If you have a book that appears no where else on the market, it used to be considered to be "filling a gap in the market", but not it is dissmissed as "Clearly no demand otherwise someone would have written it already..."

This chicken and egg approach to publishing is also not helped by Marketing and Sales departments run by people who simply hate to take a risk. I guess playing the safe-card keeps there career blot free.

Marketing in non-fiction is also blighted by the looooooonnnnngggg time it takes to make a decision on a title.

David Langford said...

Wandering off at a tangent ... this story about price shenanigans at Amazon may be of interest.

Dobby said...

I've come across this myself David, sometimes objects in my "save until later" checkout area have increased or decressed according (I presume) to demand and supply... You can make this work for you though. I've noticed that if I save an item, it will, within a few days, increase in price. If I don't buy it though, it will eventually drop back down, it may even drop below the original price, which is presumably how their dynamic price application works.

Demand = high price = Increase price

Lack of order for x number of days = price boundary too high = decrease price

It's a similar theory to ice cream vans in Hyde Park on a Bank Holiday charging 200% more for a can of coke! Or, as you say, airline compaines charging twice the amount to travel on the same day as they would a few weeks later if booked in advance - regardless of the amount of people on board!

Anonymous said...

Iain said:

"I wish that someone somewhere would decide to publish something for no better reason than that he or she liked it so much."

There are loads of people like that. They're called self-publishers. What Iain meant was perhaps that he wished someone would market and distribute something just because he or she liked it. Well, that would be the Gideonites...

Martin R

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