Nielsen BookScan’s “evergreen” listing is arguably the most exclusive chart in bookselling history. It is not a rundown of the biggest-selling books, although the titles do shift enormous quantities.
No, it is a list of the books that week after week prove enduringly popular; those that for the past 13 years have managed to remain in Nielsen’s top 5,000, the chart that has been called the Total Consumer Market (TCM) since 2001.
Out of just over 1.8 million different ISBNs that Nielsen BookScan has UK sales data for from the past 13 years, only 12 titles have appeared in every weekly top 5,000 titles chart. That is more than 650 weeks of solid, and often spectacular, sales.
It is an eclectic chart that perhaps would surprise many publishers and readers. A quick straw poll of customers at Foyles about what would be the most consistently popular books elicited answers ranging from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, all of which for varying reasons have not made the cut.
Only two titles on the evergreen chart, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong (Vintage) and J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit (HarperCollins), appeared on the BBC’s 2003 Big Read poll, which ostensibly listed the nation’s top 100 best-loved novels.
It is difficult to pin down an overriding pattern for the list. Birdsong is the only adult literary novel. Two children’s titles feature: Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Puffin) and Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (Walker Books). There is a brace of self-help and mind, body and spirit books: M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled (Arrow) and James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy (Bantam). Delia Smith’s ongoing popularity is shown by the appearance of her Complete Cookery Course (BBC Books). Two heavyweight non-fiction titles appear: Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (Abacus) and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (Bantam).
While no single volume or complete edition of the Lord of the Rings appears, the 1992 edition of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (HarperCollins) makes the list. Yet the king of this chart is Terry Prachett, with three early titles from his Discworld series: The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic and Mort (Corgi).
“It pleases me greatly, but doesn’t surprise me,” says Pratchett’s editor at Corgi, Marianne Velmann. “Terry has created this massive, sprawling universe that is a satire of our time. He continues to attract fans, and when they come to Discworld, it makes sense that they want to go back to the beginning.”
Titles in the evergreen chart would have to shift at least 100 units per week in order to remain in the TCM’s top 5,000. TCM data covers more than 90% of all retail book purchases in the UK—the remaining being very specialist sites such as gift shops, specialist booksellers and tourist information centres. This represents sales through 8,500 retailers in the UK each week.
Though data is not available pre-1995, many of these titles were published before that year, and it would be reasonable to assume that they have been in the top half of the market for even longer than the figures suggest. Actual sales figures only date from 1998 when Nielsen created the TCM precursor, the General Retail Market. Nielsen has, however, had a top 5,000 since 1995, but does not issue sales from 1995–98 because the pool of retailers it collected data from was expanding weekly.
An important caveat is that the data refers to specific ISBNs rather than “the book”. The Very Hungry Caterpillar (9780241003008) refers to the miniature board edition, which has sold close to 600,000 copies to date; sales in all editions of the book top 1.2 million. Titles commonly fall off the list when a new edition is brought out or a film or TV tie-in is published, a reason for the omission of books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and the Lord of the Rings. However, the upcoming introduction of the International Standard Text Code, now being tested by Nielsen, should make it easier to build an evergreen chart by book rather than ISBN.
That the chart is built on specific ISBNs perhaps affects classics most acutely. No single edition of Pride and Prejudice has lasted on the TCM, as the sales are cannibalised by competing editions and regular list revamps by classics publishers such as Penguin and Oxford University Press.
Yet classics do shift lots of copies: 62 different editions of Pride and Prejudice were sold in the UK in 2007, with sales totalling 58,707. The Penguin Classics revised edition, published in 2003, topped the table, shifting 14,340 copies. Similarly, Jane Eyre was published in 52 classics editions last year, with combined sales of 43,552—the Penguin Classics version again beat the field with 12,762 sold. If sales for all editions were combined for both those titles, they would stack up nicely against the evergreen books’ sales last year. Only one evergreen title, The Very Hungry Caterpillar at 77,573, bettered Pride and Prejudice. Jane Eyre would sit in fourth place last year, behind The Very Hungry Caterpillar, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (49,829) and Birdsong (45,401).
Rolling on and on
Yet despite the caveats, the 12 books have found the publishing holy grail: ongoing, enduring appeal. Some of the titles have been helped by film adaptations or TV series, or have been aided by adaptations of their authors’ other books. Sales of The Hobbit, for example, had a three-year peak in 2001–03 (142,541, 126,771 and 61,229 respectively), rising from 33,084 in 2000. It was undoubtedly boosted by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Other publicity has helped as well. Birdsong’s sales shot up to 144,314 in 2003, helped by the BBC’s Big Read poll, after selling 85,544 in 2002.
M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled had its biggest spike in sales in June 1998, shifting 2,500 copies the week after Spice Girl Geri Halliwell was photographed reading its sequel Further Along the Road Less Travelled.
Yet regardless of these peaks, the evergreen titles have remarkable consistency week in and week out.
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage) 18th Jul 1994: 989,277
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Puffin) 19th March 2001: 596,079
The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien (HarperCollins) 5th March 1992: 514,920
Complete Cookery Course (v 1–3 in 1v) by Delia Smith (BBC Books) 5th September 1986: 393,030
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen (Walker) 18th November 1988: 325,539
The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (Bantam) 15th March 1990: 321,489
The Colour of Magic (Discworld) by Terry Pratchett (Corgi) 6th October 1994: 293,488
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (Abacus) 16th September 1993: 246,806
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (Bantam) 6th April 1995: 222,179
The Road Less Travelled by M Scott Peck (Arrow) 29th September 1994: 196,339
The Light Fantastic (Discworld) by Terry Pratchett (Corgi) 18th January 1985: 192,928
Mort (Discworld) by Terry Pratchett (Corgi) 12th October 1995: 179,965
THE NEXT GENERATION
So what will be the new crop of evergreens? Eighteen titles which have been published after the TCM began in 1998 have never fallen out of the top 5,000. The new list, perhaps reflecting the increase in deep discounts and falling average selling prices of bestsellers, is far less eclectic. It is dominated, unsurprisingly, by J K Rowling and Dan Brown, whose books account for 11 of the 18 entries. Sales data quoted below is from 1st January 1998 to 16th July 2008, and excludes titles published this year.
The Harry Potter series (Bloomsbury)
J K Rowling
Orig pub date: 26th June 1997 (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
Total sales: 11,298,736 (combined)
Eight different editions of the Potter franchise have never fallen off the TCM, with the children’s paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (9780747532743) topping the list, chalking up life sales of 2,917,474.
The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, Deception Point (Corgi)
9780552149518, 9780552150736, 9780552151764
Orig pub date: 1st March 2004, 1st July 2003, 1st May 2004
Total sales: 9,086,612 (combined)
Brand Brown continues to churn along in the TCM, despite the long wait for the much-rumoured follow-up to The Da Vinci Code. When Brown delivers the next book, expect his backlist to rocket up the charts again.
The Lovely Bones (Picador)
Orig pub date: 6th June 2003
Total sales: 1,513,047
Boosted by the Richard & Judy and Oprah book clubs, The Lovely Bones also took home the 2004 Richard & Judy Best Read Nibbie. Sales are sure to rise next autumn on the release of a film version directed by Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Vintage)
Orig pub date: 1st April 2004
Total sales: 1,389,174
Appealing to both children and adults, the book’s staying power has been aided by its inclusion on school reading lists.
The World According to Clarkson (Penguin)
Orig pub date: 26th May 2005
Total sales: 1,381,436
The “Top Gear” presenter and Times columnist has a massive following, and this collection of rants is an annual Father’s Day and Christmas hit.
A Short History of Nearly Everything (Black Swan)
Orig pub date: June 1st 2004
Total sales: 1,254,658
An amiable explanation of everything from the Big Bang to particle physics, it is the enduringly popular general science book of the past decade.
A Child Called It (Orion)
Orig pub date: 4th January 2001
Total sales: 1,082,685
Pelzer’s story of his horrific childhood established the misery memoir genre, not just in content but jacket design, and continues to roll along.
The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Abacus)
Alexander McCall Smith
Original pub date: 5th June 2003
Total sales: 1,069,747
The first of McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe books, its sales are boosted with the publication of each new title in the series.
Life of Pi (Canongate)
Orig pub date: 17th May 2003
Total sales: 1,004,296
The only Man Booker Prize-winner on either evergreen list, Canongate has helped sustain the franchise this past year by publishing a Life of Pi illustrated edition.