How does 'Fifty Shades of Grey' compare with the classics of all time?

September 11, 2012

An article in this week’s Bookseller magazine gives some interesting details on sales of a perennial classic, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which make fascinating comparison with the listings of bestselling books (in the UK) from Nielsen BookScan, since their records began in 1998.

The official BookScan No.1 is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code with 5.2 million copies, closely followed by The Official Highway Code (4.9m) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (4.5m). However, the surprise story of this year is without a doubt E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, at No.7 with 3.9m copies sold in the UK. If we, by analogy with The Lord of the Rings, consider the trilogy to be one book in three parts and combine their sales, Fifty Shades stands way out ahead in first place, having shifted a massive 8.9m copies – all the more astonishing since it was only published 8 months ago, by a previously unpublished author. No book has ever sold so quickly. If it were to continue at this rate, just in this country, it would only take three years to overtake world-wide sales of Tolstoy’s War and Peace since 1869 (roughly estimated at 80m, about the same as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and half of The Lord of the Rings’ totals). ‘All-time’ sales are notoriously difficult to assess; The Little Prince often leads these sort of listings, with estimates of 200m sales in all languages since 1943, but E. L. James has already sold 40m books across the world. If we stick with the UK BookScan charts, she as an author has still jumped from nowhere to equal 13th place since records began by volume; equal that is with Daisy Meadows of the Rainbow Magic series (over 100 titles, one plot, and an unknown number of ghostwriters). She is thus ahead of such bookselling giants as Stephen King and Roald Dahl – even Delia Smith. She has still some way to go to catch the biggest three – J. K. Rowling with 31m books, James Patterson (and his many co-authors; 71 novels in 33 years) and Roger Hargreaves (also more than 100 titles) with 16m each – but at this rate she would be in second place by next summer.

Of course, it may not last. There are signs that sales of Fifty Shades are starting to slow already, and any book may reach a saturation point. Truly long-term sellers are rare: Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It is marginally ahead of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong in the listings now (both 1.2m), but I would guess that Birdsong has a better chance of still being in those lists ten years from now. Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813 with a print-run of 1500 copies, and was itself an immediate success; it was reprinted in the same year and then again in 1817, but then slipped out of print until 1833 and did not recover in popularity until late in the century. It now sells an average of 50,000 copies a year in the UK. The real literary sensation of the 1810s however was a book much less-read now, Byron’s Childe Harold – its first edition sold out in five days, and in its first six months of life, it sold the unprecedented figure of 4500 copies. "I awoke one morning and found myself famous," he later wrote. Of course in those days, the British reading public could not number more than about 50,000 people, and each book printed is estimated to have been read by about 8 people.

These days, that is very different. The ‘reading public’ is a substantial proportion of the population, and E. L. James’s big success has been to reach outside the normal book-buying public for her readers. But books are lent around far less, and then usually only the first of a series. That Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows should be the best-seller of the Potter books attests to this; indeed it has sold over a million more copies in the UK than the ‘weakest’ seller of the set, The Prisoner of Azkaban (3.4m). It would appear that people often lent or borrowed the first three Potter books; by the end of the series everyone would buy their own. Different series follow different patterns, however. With Stieg Larsson’s Millennium books, for instance (and this pattern is also observable with Fifty Shades and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has, naturally, sold the most (2.3m). There is then a gap, as not everyone goes on to read the others, and the next two volumes sell a roughly equal amount (in this case, 1.8m). In other words, almost everyone who gets to book 2 reads book 3 also. With Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books, however, the gaps are closer, and more even. The first book IS the bestseller of the four (2.3m again), but there is less to choose between them; in this case it seems, once hooked, you are more likely to stay in.

But back to the comparison with two centuries ago. Books are cheaper in real terms now, and not just for the gentry. We buy about 200 million a year in the UK; it was 10m in 1880, and possibly 100m in total for the entire period 1600-1800. No bookseller in the 1810s would carry a new stock of any size; certainly nothing to compare with a modern Waterstones, and even then it would consist only of established sellers. The great majority of sales were direct orders, driven largely by reviews. Risks on newer authors were more likely to be taken by circulating libraries, who lent out books by the volume. Possibly the biggest difference is that the bookseller would know every book in his stock, and would probably have read every review that appeared. The booksellers themselves were taking a much smaller cut of the book’s price than they now command; and so discounting would have been laughed at as a mug’s game. That is something the book trade could do with thinking about now.

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