The terrifying world of book statistics

A piece looking at creativity and sales in the book and video games markets; first published on First Drafts, April 2009

I’m working with moderate desperation to finish a book at the moment (84 days until deadline, and I could swear there are no longer 24 hours in most of them). I say a book, as though writing books is the kind of thing I do all the time; but this is the book, my first, and it’s a great leap into the unknown. So here’s a sobering thought for those wondering, like me, if their words will merit even a flicker in the flow of public consciousness. Britain’s top-selling author last year was a man who once claimed (on Parkinson, no less) never to have read a book: Jamie Oliver. Who, the Bookseller relates, “has leapt to the top of the author of the year chart. Last year sales of his books through Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer Market totalled £11.5m.”

This is news, no doubt, that’s been round the blogosphere a few thousand times while I’ve been typing in my dungeon. But it’s still part of a market picture that shocked me, even as someone who thought himself sanguine about the modern book world – a place where the best and worthiest books don’t sell lots; only a few people get large sales; and nothing much gets changed by bien-pensant whining). Here’s a little more from the Bookseller on the statistics behind Britain’s top-selling authors (with much fuller analysis and details here):

Deep analysis of the overall list [of the 50 best-selling authors in Britain] underlines the trade’s dependence on a comparatively small group of authors, perhaps indicating that the “long tail” is something of a myth. Around 2,000 authors sold £100,000-worth or more of books in 2008, out of around 120,000 authors in all who sold books last year. Those 2,000 authors together sold £930m-worth but, within that, the top 50 authors accounted for around £250m-worth of sales. It seems the level of advances and author-poaching between the big houses is too low, not too high.

Glance over that paragraph again, remembering that a proportion of top-sellers are either dead or not British: this is a list of everyone. Around 2,000 authors sold over £100,000 worth of books in Britain in 2008, out of 120,000 authors selling books. Even if you generously pretend that every author is getting royalties of 12.5 per cent on sales—and that all agents work pro bono—another way of putting that would be: “118,000 out of 120,000 authors with books on sale in Britain—98.3 per cent—earned less than £12,500 in royalties in 2008.” This excludes foreign earnings, which for a few native authors represents a decent second stream of income. But most have few or no sales outside the UK. So if we’re trying to take the temperature of this country’s writers, we can be sure that almost all will earn much less than the £12,500 ceiling. This needn’t be adjusted for advances, either, as these have to be earned back before royalties start. Judged as an hourly rate, most authors would be better off picking up spare change from the street.

At least we know what works, though. Celebrity, cooking and children’s books:

What [the 2008 list] shows is the vital importance of the hardback non-fiction market in pure cash terms. So Jamie Oliver benefits from both Jamie’s Ministry of Food, last autumn’s title, but also Jamie at Home, the previous Christmas’ title that sold well into early 2008. Paul O’Grady is in the top 10 on the back of a successful celebrity memoir, and he is joined in the top 25 by Dawn French, Julie Walters and Michael Parkinson. The inimitable Katie Price also gatecrashed the top 20 with a mixture of fiction and memoir. Literary purists will slide past R&J star Husseini at number two, and Bond-propelled Sebastian Faulks at 22, before alighting on Ian McEwan at 31, just behind Jodi Picoult, with sales of £4.1m…

As a non-celebrity non-chef with few child-charming skills, my pre-emptive defensive instincts kick in at this point. This is just the nature of modern media, I tell myself: get used to it, don’t be unrealistic, keep going. It’s not as if most authors only write books; and writing a book abut something you care about is still a wonderful opportunity.

Yet the actual subject I’m writing on—video games—offers a tantalizing comparison to the book world. The young video games industry is an amazing mess of growth, crisis, creativity, crassness and yet-to-be-fulfilled potentials. But its rapidly-expanding software sector is also about the same size as the British consumer book market (there were £1.9bn of games software sales in 2008, versus £1.78bn consumer book sales). And a glance at the ten best-selling games of 2008 reveals that—you may have to trust me on this—all ten are at least very good, and several are absolutely brilliant (GTA IV and Mario Kart Wii for starters). Numerous other dazzlingly good games have sold hugely in 2008, too, which has been something of a golden year for the industry (examples include Braid, Smash Brothers Brawl, Rock Band 2, Spore, Far Cry 2 and Left 4 Dead). Audiences are lapping up the quality stuff, quite a bit of which is being made here in Blighty, the world’s fourth-biggest games producer and market.

Now, it may be a little unfair to compare apples and oranges like this. But the differences in the health, vigour and levels of excitement and passion in these two industries—a divide I’m currently very exposed to between my writing and editing duties—is striking, and seems to be directly reflected in the marketplace. It makes me wonder how happy Britain’s authors are—how happy they can be—as a collective creative set. And, most importantly, what the medium of choice will be for the brightest and the best in coming generations, as they look to unleash their talents on the world. After all, even last year’s best-selling author would rather be playing games than reading.