Charting progress

"Super Tuesday", "Triumphant Thursday", whatever the soubriquet (or not!), there’s always a moment when Christmas proper starts and all eyes are on the charts. This year, not having a book out, I’ve been watching the circus from the sidelines. Before the advent of published weekly sales figures, the nerves around publication were mostly to do with reviews. Would there be any? Would they be good or bad or downright ugly? Would they be fair? It was acknowledged to be a nail-biting time for author and publisher alike.

Now, although reviews are still a cause of anxiety or anger (or, if you’re lucky, delight), the debate about a novel’s relative success or failure is linked more to chart position, and to the transparency of sales, than to notices. In the same way, some authors read their reviews and others don’t, some authors care about chart position more than others. From a business point of view, making the Top 10—better still, the Top Five—can be crucial in ensuring a book stays on the shelves or front table for longer; it’s an additional weapon in the agent’s armoury when selling foreign rights; and there is no mixed message with a sticker that reads: "No 1".

Reading online debate about Martina Cole having "lost out" to Terry Pratchett because certain retailers broke the embargo, suggests chart position does matter. But I suspect most publishers would argue that it’s far less important in the long run than volume sales. And with the continuing insane practices of deep discounting and devaluing of books (75% off, 50% off, "two-for-one" promotions), it’s clear that transforming sales patterns, stimulating growth and analysing the migration of readers from actual to virtual modes of delivery is the name of the game. In the context of these very real challenges to the industry, chart position (or lack of) might be seen as a mere distraction.

But there is value in comparative sales, a sense of where an author sits in relation to his or her peers. The weekly chart is a snapshot of what’s working, what’s not, and how things are changing regardless of how high or low the sales are in actual terms. And, sentimentally speaking, from an author’s point of view, the chart position can be "proof" that everybody’s hard work (agent, publisher, writer too) has paid off. In this competitive and challenging environment, that reassurance is worth a great deal.