Monday, May 23, 2005

Trends in bestsellers

This blog tends to concentrate on fiction, but it must never be forgotten that the vast majority of books that are published are non-fiction. And if you're thinking of writing for a living, it wouldn't hurt to give a little thought to what is selling in the non-fiction field.

I mention this because every week the Sunday Times publishes some bestseller tables. Not so long ago, these were based on reports from just half a dozen booksellers. What reputedly happened was, come the day when the shop had to report what was selling, they had a look at the view from the office door, saw which big pile of books had not reduced much this week, and listed that as the number one seller; the hope was that reporting that the slow seller was in fact a hot item would shift a few copies in the course of the next week.

Now, however, all that has changed. Oh yes. Nowadays the sales analysis is all done by computer, and is therefore totally reliable. Well, at least it's based on a far greater number of shops than it used to be, and at least it records, in theory, the number of books that have actually been exchanged for cash from the customer.

I don't normally bother to look at the bestseller lists these days, but there was a time when I did so religiously. But it has been observable, probably since time began, that there tend to be fashions in books, as in shoes, ties, and handbags. Once upon a time, in the 1920s and '30s, detective stories were all the rage. About the time of The Godfather, it was mafia books. And so forth.

I well remember an agent saying to me, early in my career, that by the time the average person noted a trend in publishing, it was over. In other words, if you notice that chick lit is highly commercial this year, and then sit down to write one, it might well take you a year. You would then have to find a publisher, which might take you another year. And it would take a third year to get it into the shops. By which time the punter will have lost all interest in chick lit, and will have moved on to something else.

However, if you were really, really clever, a couple of years ago, what sort of a non-fiction book would you have written, in anticipation of what seems to have become a hot topic in 2005?

The answer, I think, is a book about a child having a thoroughly miserable time. Here, to illustrate the point, are some of one- or two-line summaries of books which currently appear in the Sunday Times bestseller lists:

Girl survives physical and sexual abuse to emerge as a loving parent.
Harrowing ordeal of the Belgian girl abducted by a paedophile.
Psychologist aids former patient's transition into teenage life.
Son of Yorkshire Ripper's first victim recounts his traumatic childhood.
Account of a couple torn apart by the murder of their young daughter.
Boy's journey from a painful and lonely childhood into adulthood.
Educational psychologist helps an abused child back to life.
Account of being raised by a mother with Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.
That's 8 out of a total of 20 books on the hardback and paperback non-fiction lists.

What is the appeal of such books? Well, I haven't read them; but at a guess I would say that they all deal with adversity faced with courage; and presumably they all end with some hope for a better future.