Sunday Salon: Book Depository and Man Booker

TSSbadge3 My small contribution this week is an interview of me by Mark Thwaite over at The Book Depository, in which I say a little bit about blogging and recommend some excellent books. None of them, of course, on the Man Booker prize shortlist, which was announced earlier in the week.

Declan Burke pointed out the relationship between readers' choice and judges' selection from the longlist. The books in red below were shortlisted, the ones in black were not. The numbers at the end of each title are the numbers of copies sold in the UK by the end of July. The clothes on their backs sold 13 copies in the week ending 26 July and 144 in the following week (the longlist was announced on 29 July). Or, to look at it another way, by the end of July all the shortlisted titles combined had not sold as many as the top-selling two books, by a long way. Yet the top-selling two books - not mass-market titles but books that had been considered worthy of longlisting - were not shortlisted.

1. The Enchantress of Florence 15,433
2. Child 44 8,278
3. Sea of Poppies 5,034
4. Netherland 4,023
5. The Clothes on Their Backs 3,592
6. The White Tiger 1,852
7. The Secret Scripture 1,568
8. A Case of Exploding Mangoes 1,000
9. The Northern Clemency 916
10. A Fraction of the Whole 392
11. The Lost Dog 363

These figures allow the literati to have a good old preach at the expense of the great unwashed reading public, for example, The Independent: "In the five weeks after the long-list announcement on 29 July, the 13 titles of the “Booker dozen” sold fewer than 14,000 UK copies; on average, barely 1,000 each. This is, frankly, pathetic." I beg to disagree with this snobbish assessment. Perhaps readers buy books because they are (or look as if they might be) good, and not if they aren't. Perhaps the judges might have factored into their selection that more than 15,000 discerning readers had stumped up hard-earned cash to read Salman Rushdie, therefore the book might be considered rather good by quite a lot of readers. I cannot see a single one of the Man Booker shortlist on the top 50 sellers in the UK last week (week ending 6 September), in which 26,755 people paid up for no. 1 (still Linwood Barclay), ranging down to 5,080 for no. 50 (Clarissa Dickson Wright edged into last place by Bill Bryson). Similarly, none of the shortlist appears in the top 10 sales at independent bookstores in the past week. It is a long time since I gave up reading the Booker shortlist each year, as was my wont, because I found it to be such an unreliable indicator of the quality of a book. Clearly, things haven't changed: what people actually like reading is not partially but totally irrelevant to this top literary prize.

3 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Book Depository and Man Booker

  1. I actually think the price of hardbacks plays a large part in the lack of sales — all the shortlisted books are at least £15 a pop. I’m interested in reading at least four off the list, but I am waiting for the paperback release. And this, from someone, who’s quite happy to go into a bookstore on a semi-regular basis and spend £20 or £30 at a time *on the condition that I get quite a few books for that money*.

  2. I haven’t been into a bookshop this weekend, but in previous years they have featured the Booker shortlist on display at 3 for 2 offers or other discounts. Maybe they’ve stopped doing that now. I agree that HBs tend to be priced far too high, and I prefer to read a paperback format in any event. Still, old Salman shifted 1500 pretty quick, even so!

  3. The controversy that has erupted this year has led to new facts known and me to think that it’s all so subjective as to be of little value.
    Publishers submit two novels for the Booker Prize, apparently. Simon & Schuster submitted Child 44 which leads me to ask why so many superb thrillers and crime fiction novels didn’t previously make it to the lists. Did the publishers lack courage? If so, why?
    I read somewhere that a publisher with a “name” simply has to submit the name’s novel in the year it comes out for the Booker, because they are afraid that the author will walk away to another publisher if they don’t. Hence Rushdie’s appearance on the longlist this year, I presume.
    Such structure to the determination of the prize (its terms and conditions) and behind the scenes politics devalue the prize in my mind.
    I am one of those who has a bookshelf of Booker listers not read, from over a decade ago, I might add.
    After reading the data from this year, the blog posts and other, I’m firmly out. It means nothing to me. The result will be a product of publisher loyalty and a judging panel’s need to subjectively seek the best of it.
    This is not the only literary prize to need objectivity and fairness. Sad that the main one is left wanting after some investigation…

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