The understory

Last week we noted that 2020 had not been such a bad year for début authors after all, with generational talents such as Kiley Reid, Naoise Dolan, Beth Morray and, of course, the Booker Prize-winner Douglas Stuart breaking through despite the disruption. This week, as part of our Review of the Year series, we reveal the Top 50 Authors (pp06–09), based on their sales performance through the 36 weeks of the year when Nielsen BookScan could provide data, along with a list of the Top 30 illustrators (pp12–13), ranked by their value sales in 2020.

As you might surmise, the year was pretty good for the brands, bestsellers and celebrities who benefited from a period when their names carried additional weight in the marketplace. In the author list, the top three earners—Julia Donaldson, David Walliams and J K Rowling—made almost as much in the 36 weeks of reported data as they probably would expect in a normal full year. In the Illustrator list, alongside having a recognised name (Tony Ross, Axel Scheffler, Liz Pichon et al), it also helped to have an extensive backlist as readers (and parents) looked to fill the void with recognisable words and pictures.

It is through these analyses that we begin to get a better sense of how 2020 really played out, including the winners, the losers, and those who reside somewhere in between. We see, for example, how important timing was in 2020. Many of the successful débuts we noted last week were published around, not during, the lockdowns, at moments when readers were hungry for the new. A further chart (p08) looks at the impact of streaming services (or even TV), with Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman and Sally Rooney boosting their numbers after successful adaptations of their published works were aired.

In the past, I’ve highlighted such author successes as evidence that for many writers, publishing does get a lot right, even as we hear across the media of reduced advances and miserly royalty rates. But 2020 was an unusual year, and as the names we mention here jostled for position at the top, we should also understand that for many others, the year was a disaster. Some authors saw their books languish on unvisited shelves, or shunted into far-off months for future publication; many saw their extracurricular earnings from events vanish overnight.

The author and librarian Dawn Finch tweeted in January that “Covid has now completely destroyed” both her careers. I fear that she won’t be the last. Publishing is a cruel business, and careers can end for all sorts of reasons, but the trade may need to look again at how it supports not just the individual talents it picks out, but also the profession of writing. Since March, the Society of Authors has paid out almost £1m in hardship grants, and yet its emergency fund, rather than being replenished, is running out. It has £250,000 left to cover whatever 2021 throws its way.

Some days, US President Joe Biden said this week, you need a hand; there are others when you lend a hand. In truth, we all needed a little help in 2020, and I don’t think it will be much different in 2021.