Monday, April 09, 2007

On The Road again

Last week's Bookseller mentioned that the UK hardback sales of Cormac McCarthy's last novel The Road were 10,400. In publishing terms this is a success, but after dividing this figure between the 60,000,000 people who live in Britain I worked out that only 0.017% of the population bought the book. Even if we allow for libraries and book sharing, the total number of readers for a universally-acclaimed novel by one of America's greatest writers amounts to less than 0.05% of everyone in Britain. Depressing.

But before I succumb to despair I should mention that The Road has been picked as one of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection and McCarthy has agreed to give a rare interview. Whatever you think of the Oprah/Richard and Judy book clubs, they do at least achieve something that mortal booksellers can only dream of: they make ordinary people read literary fiction. The Richard and Judy book club has made some daring choices. I never thought that the average R&J viewer would appreciate the literary pyrotechnics of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, but I was delighted to find myself proved wrong when the novel was chosen as the readers' favourite. It just goes to show how wrong people like Rupert Murdoch are.


Andrew MishMash said...

Hi Steerforth

Having spent the entirety of my bookselling career in the remainder business, I was a bit taken aback by most of your first para.

Is 10,400 UK sales a success in publishing terms for a top line US lit fic writer? Things are worse than I thought!

Is McCarthy a hardback seller? I wouldn't have thought so but I'm open to contradiction.

Are his buyers [some of whom will have been Christmas gift buyers] swayed by reviews? These seemed to advise The Road was grim, grim but worthwhile, or grim and incomprehensible.And he's been away for a while - readers resent that I think.

I agree with you about Oprah and R and J tho; their positive influence has been astounding. But I doubt they have added much to HB sales in general [if anything they may have accelerated the PB dates] and I also doubt their viewers read more by any particular author, they just move on to the next recomendation.

And do three people really read each hardback? Not mine!

Shoot me down if I've got this all wrong of course. I get depressed by the crap that people ARE reading; Mr Dan Brown and cynical ADHD trivia collections.

Happy Easter

Drew Mishmash

Steerforth said...

Hi Andrew. Yes, I have a horrible feeling that this is true. I used to have access to Ottakar's sales figures across the entire company and I remember noticing that in 2003, only eight copies of 'Mr Norris Changes Trains' were sold out of a total of over 100 branches.

Booker shortlist novels still only sell a few thousand, whilst Mr Brown continues to top the bestseller lists.

You're right about McCarthy's hardback sales - I've no doubt that it will be a bestseller in paperback. However, what I can't understand is why the unanimous critical acclaim didn't generate more interest. Last autumn, I couldn't buy a newspaper without reading a glowing review of 'The Road'. Why didn't that translate into sales?

Jan said...

Well said, particularly re Cloud Atlas and its popularity with R+J viewers.
The older I get, the more I realise it's crazy to generalise, particularly about people ( their lives, opinions, choices....)
I've had some marvellous surprises; now I shed earlier preconceived notions pretty regularly!
And I am glad Book sellers are STILL mortal too.

Resolute Reader said...

Perhaps one factor in this is the price. Waterstones' website lists the retail price at £16.99. This is a huge amount for what is actually quite a short book (I read it at one sitting, and if you are particularly bored you can read my review on my blog).

I suspect that one reason sales are really low, is that the hardback is too expensive, and most people are waiting for the paperback.

Shame, because it's frightening vision of a destroyed planet deserves a bigger audience.

Oh, and 2 others have read my copy. So that helps your figures.

Goncalo Veiga said...

Interesting. A week ago I was just talking to a friend of mine, my old manager, who is now running the 3rd biggest bookshop of this bookchain in Portugal, and he was telling me that he still can be surprised at what people are buying. In Portugal it's quite simple to sell a book, being it good or bad: just get it on TV. Reviews in good magazines or newspapers help the elite but the masses are always going for who wrote what and who's reading what. The bad thing about Portugal is that we don't have an Oprah (whose taste is not that bad).

Steerforth said...

Jan - I'm afraid that I'm guilty of generalising, after years of working with the public and there's nothing I like more than to be proved wrong. The success of 'Cloud Atlas' showed that there is an appetite for fiction that aspires to do more than entertain.

Resolute Reader - I am now a regular visitor to your blog.

Goncalo - does Portugal need an Oprah, or do ordinary people read Saramago?

Goncalo Veiga said...

I remember when Saramago won the Nobel Prize how the Portuguese all flew to bookshops to get his books, which allowed Caminho, his publisher to sell more than 100 000 copies in two weeks or so.

From what I can observe, I notice that many people read what is culturally considered good literature, either from tops analysis and newspaper reviews. But, one of the things I notice about these tops is that many books sell due to trends or because "famous" people mentioned them (some of these people are from Big Brothers and alike).

Still, there is hope!