No One Reads Literature Anymore

UnknownI’ve seen these figures in other years. Apparently, the only way to sell literature is through the publicity of prizes, and even that doesn’t work.

Whenever you read about book awards you hear they help boost sales. But what you might not know is just how much those sales need boosting. Two prestigious awards announced nominees this week; in the U.K. the Man Booker unveiled its short list and in the U.S. the National Book Awards announced its long lists.

Washington Post critic Ron Charles reviews the kinds of books that get nominated for literary awards. These are not the blockbusters, the books written by the likes of Stephen King and Nora Roberts that make millions.

Charles knows that. Even so, he was dismayed when he saw a story about the sales figures for the novels long-listed for the Man Booker. The list included The Green Road by Irish author Anne Enright, who’s won the award before.

“When I saw that Anne Enright — [who] I think of as giant in literary fiction, beloved around the world — could only sell 9,000 copies in the U.K. I was shocked, that’s really low,” he says.

According to Nielsen Bookscan, U.S. hardcover sales for five of the six Man Booker finalists were no more encouraging. (One of the books is not yet available here). Leading the pack, not surprisingly, was Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler, the only writer on the list with six-figure sales for her book A Spool of Blue ThreadA Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara had sales between 15,000 and 20,000. Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island sold 3,600 copies.

Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, sold just under 3,000 copies, which Charles says is not too bad.

“For an unknown writer?” he says. “Twenty-eight years old, no presence on social media. We’re not talking Mindy Kaling, here. He’s not sending his tweets to millions every day. Three thousand’s not bad.”

So what is a good sales figure for any book?

“A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies,” says literary agent Jane Dystel. “Even 15,000 would be a strong enough sale to get the publisher’s attention for the author for a second book.”

But if that second book doesn’t sell, says Dystel, odds are you won’t get another chance.

The rest at NPR.

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