Every month, I read another article about book trends which seemingly heralds a new dawn in bookselling. The only major trend I see in these articles is that people who write these articles are apparently incapable of reading data.
For instance, this article in the Guardian last week declares that print books are outselling e-books, as though this is an earth-shattering finding worthy of a scientific orgasm.
I am, broadly, an analyst of data by trade (and by trade I mean an actual day job which pays me an actual salary to settle my actual bills), so I’m going to say I know something about this. To extrapolate a trend or conclusion from data there must be evidence of a sustainable, or at least obvious, provable pattern. A teeny tiny spike in physical book sales plus a 4% drop in e-book sales does not constitute anything of the sort.
This desperate search for meaning where there is none wouldn’t be so bad, if publishers weren’t using bogus claims like this to make publishing decisions, which means that crappy books are often published instead of good ones. Some of the recent dodgy trends I’ve seen have had serious implications for authors, because they make people in the book industry think “Oh look, that’s the next big thing, we’ll only look for more of that then”.
Bullshit Is So Hot Right Now
A few years ago we were all told that e-books were outstripping sales of physical books. Now we’re told that physical books are outstripping e-books, as though this is something meaningful which has never happened before – apart from the centuries of bookselling before the 2000s, of course.
I can think of multiple reasons why physical books are again selling in greater numbers than e-books, and none of them have anything to do with literature.
By far the biggest reason is the recent production frenzy in what I like to call “Books For People Who Don’t Read Books”. This type of book usually just doesn’t work in e-book format, and includes glossy coffee table books from C-list celebrities, which are really nothing more than bound hard copy Instagram feeds; the overblown and not-terribly-successful glut of Hygge books in 2016; and the Ladybird parodies which have a very special niche in the gift book market, such as How It Works: The Husband, which in turn spawned the Famous Five parodies such as Five Go To Brexit Island. Before that, we had the adult colouring book phenomenon, and through it all, we have the enduring popularity of aspirational cookbooks, especially those supposedly written by celebrities.
Apart from the recipe books, all the others are simply fashions which die out – some, like the Hygge books, before they’ve even really started – but these print medium-dependent books began dominating the market in 2014.
From 2009-2012, fashion resided entirely elsewhere. First, sales of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy exploded, showing what can happen when young adult crossover fiction really takes hold in the adult market. Then EL James appeared with Fifty Shades Of Grey, and you couldn’t walk onto a self-respecting train without encountering someone eyeball-deep in handcuffs and inexplicably aroused ingénues.
Just these two genres, however – YA Crossover and Erotica – were the reason why e-book sales rose so quickly and so noticeably. This was because they favoured a) younger, more tech-savvy readers and b) embarrassed readers who appreciated the anonymity (not to mention ambidexterity) of e-Readers. As soon as these two genres fell out of favour, so did e-book growth.
Okay, But Why So Angry, Tara? Didn’t You Vow To Try Out Pacifism In 2017?
I like numbers because they are a big flirty tease. I spend a lot of my life looking at numbers, trying to figure out what they’re trying to tell me. In my job I could easily extrapolate dodgy conclusions from a set of data, slap a catchy headline on a report, and toddle off to bitch about somebody by the water cooler while my half-assed argument does the rounds. But the people I work with are far too smart to accept such sloppy efforts. They would much rather find some truth in what I’m writing.
A report based on surveys which ask an unquantified number of non-age-specific children whether they like holding who knows what kind of paper books or e-books in their hands tells us nothing, whereas the lack of blockbuster children’s and YA titles in recent years speaks volumes. And describing a hardback copy of a stage play as “the latest Harry Potter” and saying that it simply ‘translates better in the printed form’ is disingenuous in the extreme.
Publishing tenuous conclusions based on poor analysis is the domain of lazy, fake news mongers. In the grand scheme of things, of course this might not matter to a lot of people when it comes to books. But when this sort of thing leads to celebrity trash eating up marketing budgets and damn good stories or characters never seeing the light of day, we all lose.
Now That You’ve Stopped Complaining, Could We Have A Joke Please
Sure. Here’s one I made earlier. Enjoy.