Saturday, 11 August 2012

Bestsellers and The End of Civilisation.

So apparently, 50 Shades Of Grey is the best-selling book of all time in the UK.


This was being posted on various blogs and forums and walls with the standard "What is the world coming to?" response, a response I have indulged in occassionally. (It feels good to rail against the artless masses from your Island of Good Taste, even if the island itself consists of Bernard Cornwell novels and an Xbox Live account).

But what troubled me this time was the following - "What on earth does 'best-seller' actually mean?". It's a more difficult question to answer than I thought, especially when you realise that the Telegraph article linked to above essentially qualifies and slightly contradicts itself in the sub-header. "Of all time" is not quite the same as "since records began". Also, I'd imagine in an "Of all time" contest there would be a clear winner. You can guess. It begins with a 'B'.

The trouble is, when it comes to book sales, the data is apparently extremely difficult to collate across everything. The number that has been quoted for sales of 50 Shades, 5.3 million, is a number released by the Publisher, Random House. I'm not implying it's unreliable, it's just useful to know where data has come from.

In response to this, The Guardian produced this list. It ostensibly shows that 50 Shades Of Gray is still behind Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and three of the Harry Potter books. "There's hope for humanity!" I hear you cry. Until you read a bit deeper, and realise these numbers are apparently from sales of the actual physical books, not e-books. If you added on e-book sales, or at the very least adjusted for the sales lost to ebook sales, it would almost certainly be higher up the list, perhaps even top. The e-book industry has taken such a massive bite out of the industry that not including at the very least some kind of + 25 to 33% 'extra' sales on their data make it pretty worthless.

The two other things to note about these data is that firstly the oldest book is from 1989 (To Kill A Mockingbird). If this is the "records" that the Telegraph mentioned beginning, 23 years does not strike me as a long time. The other is that all of the top twenty books have been published since 1997, with all bar three published since 2003. Surely this might mean that more people are reading overall. In amongst all of the hysteria about taste and decency going down the pan, this strikes me as a Good Thing.

So what we go from is "50 Shades Of Grey is best-selling book of all time" to "50 Shades Of Grey may be best-selling book since 1989, during a period of increasing readership in general, but it's almost impossible to tell." Less catchy, I suppose.

As for the actual book, I leave it to Gilbert Gottfreid.

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