Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

Some moderately interesting statistics are thrown up by The Book Sales Yearbook 2001 (Bookseller Publications, £299). For example: the top five consolidated publishing groups – Bertelsmann, Pearson, News Corp, W.H. Smith and Holtzbrinck – were responsible for a whopping 49.3 per cent of sales in the General Retail Market in 2000; grim news for independents (News Corp’s figures include those of Fourth Estate, swallowed by HarperCollins last July), though in these uncertain times maybe it’s heartening to learn that the giants control less than half the market.

At the opposite end of the scale from the multinationals, where individual books come under scrutiny, a new week-by-week analysis of bestsellers fuzzes the category up rather nicely: the best-bestseller of 2000 sold 19,080 copies in a week; the worst-best a mere 1196. BookTrack, the people who do the counting, weren’t willing to reveal which titles these were over the phone: ‘We don’t give away any information for free,’ they said (the figures here were culled from the Bookseller). The current situation in the hit parade is this: were it not for John Grisham, whose A Painted House was leading Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers by 7201 ‘units’ – which presumably means ‘books’ – to 1964 for the week ending 24 February 2001, the end of February would be one of the less impressive times of year to be topping the charts. A week later, as things warmed up for spring, Grisham was trailing P.D. James, whose new Death in Holy Orders was ahead by a nose (5408 units to 5061), and Matthew Kneale slipped to seventh place, behind Anita Shreve, Jack Higgins, Paul Eddy and Catherine Cookson, without sales falling off too dramatically, as a respectable 1366 units of English Passengers left the shelves. Perhaps in future paperbacks should think twice before proclaiming themselves ‘The No.1 Bestseller’: ‘Second only to P.D. James in the run up to Christmas’ deserving more respect, of a certain kind anyway, than ‘No. 1 at a quiet time of year’. I say P.D. James rather than J.K. Rowling because the precocious Potter has been banned from ‘fiction’ for being both underage and too successful, although I’d have thought ‘The No.5 Bestseller after Harrys Potter 1-4’ would still cut the mustard. Rowling’s sales last year, incidentally, were up £17.5 million to £26.1 million. She’s got a way to go yet, however, before she reaches the distinguished position of Eric Carle, whose Very Hungry Caterpillar has been in the BookTrack Top 5000 for 27 years, longer than any other title.

There’s good news for novelists: the number of ‘fiction buyers’ shrank from 36.5 per cent of the population to 33.6 per cent, but their average spend was up 23 per cent, which must – I think – mean that greater numbers of a wider variety of novels are being sold, unless everyone gave each of their cousins Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for Easter.

If that isn’t sufficiently cheering for struggling novelists-in-waiting, then help is at hand in the form of the Times Writer’s Guide (HarperCollins posing as Times Books, £19.99), a compendium of the Collins Wordpower series, written by the late Graham King, who will be remembered, according to Philip Howard’s Foreword and fortunately for King, as ‘more than the marketing man who transformed the Sun and the Sunday Times’, though we musn’t forget he was that, too. The Guide announces itself as being for those who ‘want to write a novel, draft a report for the School Board, create a compelling CV, write a letter of protest to the Council that will be taken seriously, or enter the brave new world of emoticons and e-mail . . . or indeed for all the family’. O brave new world, that has such emoticons in it. As to writing novels – in a kinder version of Gore Vidal’s comment to the effect that anyone who suffers from writer’s block isn’t a writer – I’d say anyone who needs to use this Guide isn’t meant to be a novelist. But much the funniest parts of it are the paradigmatic letters. Here, for example (young ladies take note) is how to accept a marriage proposal:

My Darling,

Here’s my answer – yes. Yes, YES, YES! Or, for the record, yes, I will marry you.

‘My Darling’ is, you will notice, more appropriate in this context than ‘Dear Sir’; all those affirmatives must be a fond reminder of Friday nights spent curled up on the sofa together watching a well-worn video of When Harry Met Sally; and the second sentence means: ‘I may like crummy romantic comedies, but I’m still kind of practical.’ When rejecting a marriage proposal, by contrast, it is important always to begin ‘Dear Arnold’. This way the unwelcome gentleman will realise you don’t even know his name, so couldn’t possibly be right for him. There’s a letter of commiseration from Judy to Mick on the occasion of his separation from Margot (did she say to him: ‘no. No, NO, NO!’?) – a mingling of names almost as unfortunate and doomed for dissolution as the Evelyns Waugh – in which she says: ‘As you know, I love and care for you both, so it’s a double dilemma for me.’ A double dilemma? Judy would do well to consult the section on page 462 – part of Chapter 6, ‘How to Improve Your Writing’ – called ‘An Utterly Unique Added Extra: Tautology’.

Or what about this:

Dear Pat and Don,

I can’t tell you how thrilled we were when we unwrapped your most generous gift.

How could you have known that Jamie is a fiend for toast? He almost fainted with joy when he tried out the automatic individual slice pop-up control. And you chose green! How did you know that will be perfect in our kitchen-to-be?

It was lovely seeing you both at our wedding, and when we settle down (we’re temporarily in Jamie’s old flat) I’ll let you know. Once again, many thanks.

Love,
Margaret

As poor Margaret will soon discover, there’s no substitute for sincerity.