Anatomy of the Man Booker shortlist

Bookseer is an analytics tool built to help publishers see and understand the relative impacts of promotional activities on their sales.

While Bookseer captures all sorts of data—from social media buzz to pricing, Amazon sales rank to media coverage and promotional campaigns—and therefore allows analysis of sales, marketing, pricing and PR activities, today I want to focus on a relatively rare event, the literary prize.

As soon as the Man Booker Prize announced its longlist in July, we started capturing information for all longlisted editions in their UK and US markets. This data—recorded on an hourly basis—obviously allowed us to see the impact of the shortlist announcement on 10th September, but also allows us to move beyond the UK to question how the authors’ US sales have been affected by the prize.

The short answer is that five of the six authors enjoyed a pronounced spike on the immediate announcement of the shortlist. This (unsurprising) spike has remained sustained in the month since the shortlist, suggesting that awareness and coverage of the prize in the US has already had a positive impact on non-US authors.

Fig.1. We Need New Names, Amazon Sales Rank for US Kindle (red) and print (green) edition, from July - October; results shown on a logarithmic scale. Click on image to expand.

Fig. 2. The Luminaries. Click on image to expand.

Fig. 3. A Tale for the Time Being. Click on image to expand.

Fig. 4. The Testament of Mary. Click on image to expand.

The charts above show the Amazon (US) sales rank from the announcement of the longlist in July, until 12th October, for each title’s print (green) and digital (red) edition. The announcement of the shortlist is shown in each case by the vertical purple line.

Five of the six shortlisted titles climbed thousands of places as soon as the news broke, and of those five, Eleanor Catton and Ruth Ozeki climbed highest in the Amazon Sales Rankings, with Ozeki reaching 598 in hardcover.

Fig.5. We Need New Names price promotion. Click on image to expand.

In the case of NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names we see that the Kindle edition enjoyed a dramatic price drop (from $11.04 to $2.99), shown above, on 19th September. This took the title to a peak of 13 on the Kindle Chart. However, soon after that point the price was returned to $11.04 and the title began a descent back down the charts, albeit coming to rest at a position higher than before the discount.

The exception among the shortlisted titles is the sixth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, whose US sales trajectory has no discernible spike from the announcement.

Fig. 6. The Lowland (US) Click on image to expand.

While Lahiri’s publication date, 24th September (3), could barely have been better scheduled for the prize, the shortlist announcement is just one component in an apparently flawless campaign by Knopf that sees a steady rise from well before the announcement, through reviews in the New York Times (4), National Public Radio and Time (2) and blanket media coverage.

Lahiri, who was born in India but grew up in the States, is arguably better known in the US than the UK, having won the Pulitzer and been longlisted for the National Book Awards. This profile is suggested by her data: while her UK sales spike on the announcement, they never quite surpass her US rank, which climb until she peaks at 5 and 30 on the hardback and Kindle charts respectively (3).

Fig.6. The Lowland (US and UK). Click on image to expand.

Lahiri’s hardback price (set by Random House) is untouched throughout, but her Kindle price is slashed (presumably by Amazon) on September 27th to $6.99 from $11.76.

Fig 7. The Lowland (chart shows Kindle price changes and sales rank charts).Click on image to expand.

After the discount. the title drops before slowly climbing 12 positions on the chart, from 31 to 19, but its ascent is much less dramatic than Bulawayo’s, and the price is restored two days later, after which it continues to loiter around the 30-35 mark: price seems less of a consideration for Lahiri’s readers than Bulawayo’s.

Without doubt, the Man Booker Prize already demonstrates a positive impact on US sales: every 2013 shortlisted author not already in the US top 1,000 was catapulted there or close to it by the news, and remained there for several weeks. Opening the prize to US authors will expose all shortlisted authors to the US media and therefore to more US readers, and is likely to increase sales significantly for any shortlisted author. This exposure will be good for all shortlisted authors, many of whom are likely to remain drawn from the Commonwealth, and all of whom (even the Americans) will have British publishers.

Peter Collingridge (@gunzalis) is co-founder of Bookseer (beta.bookseer.com) and vice-president of Product at Safari Books Online. He lives in San Francisco.