The mammoth in the room

This week The Bookseller launched its new reviews aggregation service Books in the Media, a website and weekly email that will tell our audience which books were reviewed, most reviewed, and by which media outlets. Leading the pack this week was Lee Child, whose book Past Tense was reviewed five times. And rightly so.

But I also noted a book that was missing from the round-up, David Walliams’ new title, The Ice Monster. Not any old book, then. A book that generated sales of 111,057 units in its first five days, making it not only this week’s number one, but also the biggest fiction release of the year—in fact, the biggest since Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the summer of 2016. As with Bad Dad, Walliams’ previous title, it may well go on to become the highest-selling new fiction title of the year, and (depending on Michelle Obama) the Christmas Number One.

There are a few reasons, we might surmise, why reviewers do not review Walliams on first release. One could be logistics: the book was published last Tuesday, as most of that week’s book review pages were going to press, and the reviewers may not have received their copies early enough.

That said, you will struggle to find a review of Bad Dad in one of the nationals, and that’s been out for more than a year—and, lest we forget, was the biggest-selling fiction title of 2017.

A second reason will be space. Although the interweb is full of places to discuss books—from Goodreads to Toppsta—book review sections are in decline, generally unsupported by the publisher purse. Reviews of children’s books are particularly squeezed, as the #CoverKidsBooks campaign has highlighted: children’s books receive just 3% of book review space in UK newspapers, despite generating over 30% of revenue.

Then there is Walliams himself. Why give precious review space to a book by a celebrity writer, one backed by the HarperCollins machine? Many books merit more coverage—and, as The Bookseller’s children’s previewer Fiona Noble argued, this one represents, for some, an “unholy trinity of kids’, celebrity and commercial fiction”. Presumably, this is why Jeff Kinney’s chart-topping Wimpy Kid book The Meltdown was also ignored by reviewers.

What other cultural product is treated with such indifference by the media? Not film, where that unholy trinity does not limit reviews of “Fantastic Beasts 2”; or games, where the biggest releases, such as “Spider-Man” or “Red Dead Redemption 2”, are lauded; or TV, where each episode of “Doctor Who” or “Bodyguard” is pored over. Somehow, it is only the biggest books, or those written by the most famous, or those meant for children, which are asked to stand aside. The undeserving most read.

We began this year heralding the Trump exposé Fire and Fury for leading the public discourse, and will end it discussing Obama’s Becoming. We are well served by the over-busy books desks of our nationals, yet in sidelining the commercial mammoths we miss a far bigger story about books, their cultural weight, and how far a very few reach out. If these are the crown jewels of the business, why are they treated as the world’s worst?