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Is the Bestseller A Thing of the Past?

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | The Lighter Side

Tara Sparling

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You’re going to have to take my word for it, but I once did a statistical analysis of how many books an author had to sell, in order to achieve official bestseller status.

In most countries, a bestseller is defined only by what makes the top 10 or top 5 list for one particular week in one particular list, usually run by a newspaper or industry periodical. In Ireland, you could make the Irish Times’ top 10 list in a slow season with as little as 300 sales in 1 week. (Which is great for PR. But disastrous for your bank account.) In the UK however, sales of 5,000 at the very least in 1 week would be needed in order to make the Sunday Times’ list.

One thing is clear, though – since 2010 or thereabouts, tying in with the growing popularity of e-Readers – fewer books are selling in very large numbers. That’s not to say that people are buying fewer books; on the contrary, people may actually be buying more books than ever before. They’re just buying fewer of the same books.

Back in the 80s and 90s, according to another statistical analysis I did* (I really mean it: I have the graphs and the pivot tables to prove it, and if anyone wants to challenge me on this, we will have a fight to the death, armed with copies of anything written by Stephen King, Danielle Steele or Sidney Sheldon) bestseller lists were completely dominated by the same people.

Once they broke through as bestselling authors, they pretty much only had to churn out one each year in order to maintain the sales figures today’s authors could only dream about (or in the case of James Patterson, get a ghost writer to churn out 3 a year).

This was because back then, the vast majority of readers read the same trusted authors, time after time. But in this age of greater connectivity, we get to hear about breakthrough bestsellers or indie hits within weeks of their popularity rising, which in turn creates greater popularity, and then greater still.

The new viral bestseller can go from 0 to 90 in days, pushing the old favourites off the shelf quicker than you can say “Dystopian Homicidal Vampire Chef Political Non-Fiction, as told by an Unreliable Narrator”.

The Dickensian Lifestyle

The tone of booky news is generally not good. Every week will produce a new think piece by somebody somewhere who is pointing out how little most authors earn; how much work authors are asked to do for free, even still, and how hard it is to say no, when authors now have to earn every penny twice – once with writing, and once with doing something that promises them ‘exposure’.

The general bad news is that the bestselling book of the year nowadays will generally sell far fewer copies than the bestselling book of the year 10 or 20 years ago. The good news is that book sales are now split between more authors.

Single titles sell fewer copies. But there still has to be a top 100: it just isn’t locked up as tightly any longer. There aren’t so many barriers to entry to that list, for emerging writers.

With all the talk of Amazon and e-Readers and self-publishing and the doomsday predictions of the imminent death of the book as we knew it, we sometimes forget that it isn’t the way that we buy books which matters: it’s the way we hear about them.

Increased accessibility helps, but nobody cares unless people are talking about your book, saying it’s a good read, and recommending that other people should go and read it too.

Okay, but…

Another way of looking at it, of course, is the optimistic way. Now, I don’t tend to dabble in optimism myself; but I am a generous and self-sacrificing type, who would do anything for the readers of Writing.ie – so I’m going to lay it out there anyway.

It can also be said that the new open marketplace is enormously encouraging, particularly for authors who might be considering self-publishing. Bad news for blockbusters is good news for emerging scribblers.

The next bestseller could come out of nowhere. It could be your novel. So you’d better get it finished, wouldn’t you?


*Just to clarify, the statistical analysis I speak of here refers to data from the 80s and 90s, as opposed to me doing this statistical analysis in the 80s and 90s. I did not do any statistical analysis in the 80s or 90s of my own free will. I was a child then, and 100% focused on getting an education which promised a future which at no time included the possibility of me spending time doing any statistical analysis whatsoever.

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