Wednesday 4 March 2009

Sales, a very British obsession

I will always remember the ecstatic face of a young British publisher who was trying to enthuse me with the story of one of her books which had sold – so she said – more than 50,000 copies. I am also amused when I read, in the trade press, publishers bragging about their sales, trying to hype each other out and perhaps infect the market with obviously false claims.

All right, Harry Potter has sold millions of copies worldwide, making the fortune of some Scottish ex teacher and transforming her into a lady and a celebrity. Fine. Has it got any literature value? Is the world a better place with it? What is the impact, at any time, of the UK Top 50 bestselling titles on our culture?

Atalantis has been forgotten, but not the Rape of the Lock. I am sure there are books that are now read by very few people which may change the world as we know it – or even people’s lives.

(Still, when I confessed, during a talk, that Keats’s Letters was one of my favourite works of all time, and a book that you couldn’t find in Waterstone’s or Borders – and certainly not in Smith’s – I was called a snob by a member of the audience.

I must here point out – to pre-empt the inevitable censure of the anti-intellectual brigade – that I am proud to come from a working-class background and to have paid for my own education to the last penny.)

Jane Austen’s books sold poorly during her lifetime, and she had to finance the printing of most of her books. Joyce had Ulysses printed by a French bookseller, and – well – didn’t become rich with the proceedings, unlike his grandson. Leopardi sold a handful of copies of his Canti. Dante sold no copies at all of his Divine Comedy. I could give a hundred more examples.

So why is every publisher so obsessed with finding the next Richard & Judy or Oprah pick – the next Bestseller? And why do readers buy what most other readers buy?

But I am rambling and ranting. Let’s all go to sleep.


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