A measure of progress

Will we see this week as the moment when everything changed, a peek through the looking glass into a new era? I speak not of the sometime author and Conservative MP Boris Johnson becoming the UK’s Prime Minister, but the release of Amazon’s new weekly charts showing, for the first time, the impact of the huge but opaque digital sector on book sales.

There are plenty of known knowns from the first week’s release. Rachel Abbott, the author behind the biggest-selling fiction title of the week, And So it Begins, has long been a digital hit-maker. Her début thriller, Only the Innocent, was self-published in 2011, with Amazon revealing in 2015 that she was its bestselling "indie" author in the five years since Kindle launched. Like many of these authors, however, she has been largely absent from Nielsen BookScan’s bestseller universe, her top-seller having shifted just 6,955 copies in print. The chart also highlights the success of new digitally-led publishers such as Joffe Books and the more familiar Bookouture, which feature along with Amazon imprints Lake Union Publishing and Thomas & Mercer.

There is also the impact of audio, particularly in the most read/listens chart, where Audible’s release of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, read by Stephen Fry, sits in 10th, below the seven Harry Potter titles, their popularity also augmented by the Fry-narrated audio editions. That so many readers are listening to backlist audio shows the potential of the market, but also that it may need a different approach.

The charts’ release coincides with The Bookseller’s first-half report of the Nielsen-measured book world, showing that, with print sales up 4.4% in value, we are enjoying our best half-year since 2011 (three Prime Ministers ago, of course), driven by digital-resistant tomes such as Pinch of Nom, Fing and Hinch Yourself Happy, and commercial fiction titles such as The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Still Me. Translated into publisher performance, the data confirms stellar returns for Pan Macmillan, Faber, Scholastic and Bonnier, and middling efforts from two of the biggies: Penguin Random House and HarperCollins. As for the third, Hachette, it will be hoping for a better showing in the second half, having failed to generate sales of more than £1m for any title published so far this year. Hachette’s salve may come from the Amazon’s charts—of the top 20 most sold fiction list for last week, it can boast seven hits, and a further four in the most read list—its smart 2017 acquisition of digital specialist Bookouture starting to inform its publishing and pricing.

That this sideways glance into the digital upside-down remains necessary is unfortunate. Amazon’s decision to show the world a glimpse of ankle may be
welcome, but the view it gives us is still imperfect, disadvantaging those authors and publishers who are the wrong side of the digital divide. I may be overstating it: And So it Begins would feature in a combined "p" and "e" fiction chart, but not at the top. Nevertheless, what’s missing is now on show, and that matters.