Grey expectations

The book trade is often praised for its durability (not least in these pages), forever teetering on the right side of oblivion. This week’s chart (see p06) of the decade’s bestsellers is a good example of how this plays out. E L James might have the whip-hand over the rest, with a sales of more than £11m, but even her dominance may be reaching a natural ending: in the overall chart for 2019, her latest, The Mister, comes in at 26th.

This is not to try and rub James up the wrong way. Her first three Fifty Shades titles were the books that showed us that readers were promiscuous, happy to flit between print and digital, and that traditional publishers could profit from both. In that respect, she may just be the most important author of the past decade. The wider point is that all phenomena are ephemeral, even in the book business. The list shows us that success begets success (there are just 34 authors and illustrators on the list, with writers such as James and Walliams appearing multiple times), but also that such moments are fleeting. Of the authors listed, only three appear in the equivalent ranking of the previous decade. One day even David Walliams will be looking over his shoulder as the next big beast bears down on him. 

On the surface, publishers have seen less movement. Hachette began the decade on top with a market share of 16% and the series of the previous decade—Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight—but it was overtaken in 2013 by the merger of Penguin with Random House, which now has a lead—absent a structural shift either in ownership or business model—that looks unassailable. Both HarperCollins and the mid-sized Pan Macmillan have made advances, but in reality the story of the past 10 years is how mid-sized publishers, including indies such as Faber and children’s specialists like Usborne, have held their ground. This remains a sector where size matters not as much as sound judgement, good timing, and luck.  

Two things trouble me about the list. The first is that after almost a decade of discussion around changing this particular story, the list of authors could hardly be less diverse, a sharp reminder of how much must be done before the sector measures up to today’s society, and our expectations. It took until the final year of the decade for a black woman to win the Booker, and even then she had to share it. Second, after ten years of digital, we still cannot quantify the impact of e-book or audiobook sales, and how that would alter the make-up of these charts. This is partly reflected in the numbers: the top 50 titles sold fewer copies this decade than in the preceding one. Yet both decades saw two billion books sold for a value of £15bn, with the print market ending the decade pretty much where it had begun it. Some will say that there has been an accommodation between print, “e” and audio, but actually it has been a triumph—the market for published long-form content has grown and grown. Yet this is a story that remains frustratingly untold.

What have the 2010s taught us? That the tug of change can be a creative force for good, not the dominator we had feared.