On paper, it should be a rather one-sided battle between six of the most critically acclaimed books of the year and the work of a novice writer not known for his ability with words.
But the six works nominated for the Man Booker prize, which have been in the shops for several months, have, so far, mustered combined sales of less than 65,000 copies - 21,000 fewer than David Beckham's My Side notched up in its first two days on the shelves.
The England captain's memoirs are predicted to surpass 1.5 million sales. By contrast, the most successful Booker shortlisted author, Monica Ali, the bookies' favourite to win the £50,000 prize with her tale of two Bangladeshi sisters, Brick Lane, has sold only 39,000 copies since she was published to widespread critical acclaim in June.
And Damon Galgut, the South African author who surprised many by securing a place on the Booker shortlist with his novel The Good Doctor, has sold just 67 copies since it was published in the UK in January, according to figures from Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks sales.
The entire sales of the six novels in the running for Britain's most coveted literary prize is 64,261 copies - up until last weekend. After Ali, Margaret Atwood, who won the Booker with The Blind Assassin in 2000 and was the only established name to make the shortlist with Oryx and Crake, has fared best, with nearly 18,000 sales so far.
D B C Pierre's Vernon God Little has sold just over 3,400 copies, Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal has notched up 3,080 and official sales for Clare Morrall's Astonishing Splashes of Colour are just 912. Being a literary prize, sales are not the only point. Yet even securing a place on the shortlist can generate substantial sales.
Life of Pi by Yann Martell has sold about 300,000 paperbacks since it won the prize last year and Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, the 2001 victor, proved such a popular tale it will now be seen on the big screen. Emma Hargrave, the managing editor of Tindall Street Press, the small publishers behind Clare Morrall, said they had sold about 7,000 into booksellers but expected greater interest now.
"We're about to do another print run of 10,000 as a result of the shortlist place. We're confident the shortlist place will translate into tens of hundreds of copies, rather than tens of thousands perhaps," she said.
Doubleday is also about to print another 20,000 copies of Brick Lane, which was already one of the publishing sensations of the summer after it secured Ali a place on Granta's prestigious list of best British young novelists.
Yet the discrepancy between the high art of the Man Booker Prize and the popular art of the high street bookseller was reinforced yesterday by the announcement from WH Smith of the longlist for its "People's Choice" Book Awards.
The "People's Choice" tag is somewhat misleading at this stage for, although the public get to vote in January, the longlist is devised by WH Smith staff as suggestions for the poll. But an acknowledgement that the people's taste may be somewhat different from the esoteric choices of the grander literary prizes comes with the inclusion of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix alongside tomes by Wilbur Smith and James Herbert for fiction of the year.
A spokeswoman said it was "not just literary genius" that they took into account. "The ethos of the awards is not elitist. These are books that tap into the common consciousness." Yet WH Smith also appear keen not to patronise. Its fiction longlist also includes Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis's Yellow Dogs.
OFF THE MONEY: THE SHORTLISTTitle, Author, Copies , ValueBrick LaneVernon God LittleNotes on a ScandalOryx and CrakeAstonishing Splashes of ColourThe Good Doctor
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