Mapping out the best of the books

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The Independent Online
Book buyers are decamping in increasing numbers to the cinema, the record store, even the betting shop. Consumer Trends, the annual report of expenditure by the Government Office for National Statistics, shows that whereas we spent 24.5 per cent more on going to the cinema last year, what we spent on books declined by 3.8 per cent, the sharpest fall for 10 years.

This comes despite the collapse of the Net Book Agreement 18 months ago, when many books were discounted heavily.

Nonetheless, some categories have managed to increase their popularity. The research company Book Marketing tracks what books we buy, and where we buy them. It rates cookery books, English dictionaries and crime novels as the most popular. UK road atlases benefited from discounting, becoming the fourth most popular genre last year, up from 12th three years ago, and local street guides gained, too, rising from 15th to fifth place over the same period. Thesauruses also increased in popularity, rising from 22nd in terms of numbers of adult purchasers in 1994, to 10th last year.

Only two fiction genres made the top 10: romance and the crime/thriller novel. Andrew Miller, promotions manager of Waterstones, believes crime and romance novels most effectively meet customer's escapist fantasies. By comparison, classic fiction, historical novels and wartime adventures are less successful. But "most of Book Marketing's popular genres are about reading to a definite end, such as practical things to do with leisure time," says Mr Miller.

Hobbies, not fantasies, were driving best-sellers last year at WH Smith, which remains the largest bookseller despite the rise of chain stores, supermarkets and direct selling. The top three titles in 1996 were the Complete Theory Test Cars & Motorcycles, Damon Hill's My Championship and Delia Smith's Summer Collection. Book Marketing's research shows that interest in reference and non-fiction genres is shared fairly evenly between men and women; only cookery divides by sex, but even so, three in 10 buyers of cookery books last year were men. "We have become a nation of chefs," says Fred Newman, editor of the trade magazine Publishing News. Men fronting TV series provide the role models. Publishers have yet to find ways of persuading men to buy romance: fewer than one in 10 who bought romantic fiction last year were men, according to Book Marketing.

This research paints a different picture from that of the weekly best- seller lists, an influential promotional tools for a sector that invests little in advertising. They support the notion that a paperback selling a few hundred copies a week is a best-seller. A few weeks ago, The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson managed 25th position on the paperback, non-fiction list compiled for the Sunday Times. Its sales came to 765 that week. Hard- back book sales are even smaller: Terry Pratchett's Hogfather was 25th in the fiction list, with sales of 199. Last week John Grisham's The Partner sold 991 copies.

These weekly "charts" help to ensure that only a certain type of book makes it on to the lists. All-time best-sellers, such as the Bible or the AA Road Atlas, rarely feature. Woolworths typically prom- otes novels by Catherine Cookson, Jilly Cooper, Danielle Steel and Jeffrey Archer on its best-seller list, although over time it would sell only 80,000 copies of a best-seller such as Catherine Cookson's Tinker Girl, compared with 250,000 copies of the AA Road Atlas.

The books we buy are not the only things to have changed. Where we buy them is altering, too. The research company Corporate Intelligence estimates that supermarkets are now the fourth most popular purchasing point, gaining market share at the expense of bookshops, independents in particular. Having started with paperback fiction and children's books, supermarkets plan a broader range. Asda is doubling the number of titles to 1,000 in an attempt to take its market share to 10 per cent over the next three years. Who can doubt the salesmanship of a sector that sells wine by renaming it "great with chicken". What next? Icelandic sagas with frozen peas, or some Goethe to go with your sausages?

There is a sunny side to the bookshop story. The Internet is helping to sell books, rather than providing users with the information to make them redundant, and there is significant growth in the audio-book market. In the last two years, buyers of books on tape have increased from fewer than one in five adults to more than one in four. According to Andrew Miller, success is due to an improvement in the range of titles.

There is also a how to selling books. In the week when John Grisham's novel limped to the top in the 1,500 outlets that constitute the general bookshop market, a new book, Victory - With Tony Blair on the Road to a Landslide (Bookman, pounds 12.99) clocked up more than 2,000 sales through direct advertising in a tabloid newspaper.

Victory is an account of Labour's election campaign through the eyes of the political columnist John Williams and the lens of the photographer Tom Stoddart, who was at Blair's shoulder throughout the battle.

Because of the way the buying cycle hobbles the book trade, new titles must be notified to builders at least six months in advance, with covers and sales materials to support the presentation. This was not possible with an "instant" book such as Victory - which, even the publisher acknowledges, would not have appeared at all if the election result had favoured the Conservatives.

But even if the book trade had been given notice, would they have made the right decision? The most powerful book buyer in Britain, Michael Neil, commercial manager, books at WH Smith, gave his verdict on Victory, the best-seller:

"There's been too much coverage of the election. People would not want a book on it. We will not be stocking this book, though if someone really wants it we can order it for them.

"With tapes packaged like their hard-back and paperback counterparts, audio has shaken off its gimmicky image", he says. And it is not a sector supermarkets have tackled as yet, although Asda tells me it is looking at it.

`Books and the Consumer' will be published by Book Marketing in June; `Book Retailing in the UK' is published by Corporate Intelligence.

A life of facts


1994 1995 1996 Genre

1 1 1 Cookery books

3 3 2 English dictionaries

2 2 2 Crime/thriller stories

12 9 4 Road atlases of UK

15 13 5 Local street guides

6 6 6 Puzzle/quiz books

4 4 7 Gardening/plant books

5 5 8 Romance/love stories

7 16 9 Car repair manuals

22 19 10 Thesauruses

14 8 11 Historical novels

19 10 12 Autobiographies

13 12 13 Classic fiction

27 22 14 Short stories

11 14 15 Foreign lang. dictionaries

na na 16 Popular fiction

10 25 17 Computer manuals

16 11 18 War/adventure stories

23 18 19 Science-fiction

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