By Emily Rhodes
Last week there were a few bookish grunts of dissatisfaction when Terry Pratchett beat Martina Cole to the Number One slot.
Pratchett’s Snuff sold 31,904 copies and Cole’s The Faithless only 31,136, yet there were cries of foul play. This was because some bookshops had broken the embargo on Cole’s book and sold it the week before publication. The feeling was that if only those bookshops had played by the rules and held off, then the previous week’s sales of 1,473 would have been added to the 31,000 and Cole would have beaten Pratchett to the top. (The fact that this was, in any case, the second week for Snuff – with staggering first week sales of 54,687 – is apparently beside the point.)
At first glance, one can see why Cole and her publisher Headline were miffed. Publishing a major title, with huge marketing and advance investment, only to be pipped to the post by Pratchett must be irksome to say the least. And knowing that they could have won, if only a few naughty booksellers hadn’t sold copies ahead of publication date, must make it all the more galling.
But, on closer inspection, what is there really to be so sniffy about? It’s not as though those 1,473 copies don’t count. Headline and Martina Cole still get their respective shares of sales revenue. Moreover, as those copies were sold in bricks-and-mortar bookshops, rather than on Amazon, the share for the publishers would have been rather a lot bigger. Thanks very much for the extra cash, I’d say, who cares about Number One?
As a bookseller, I have never, ever, been asked which book is Number One. Some customers, of course, ask for the bestsellers, or for one particular book I’d recommend, but never for the national Number One. It’s not like music’s singles chart – after all, no one tunes in to the radio on Sunday night to listen to the countdown for books. They can read it in The Sunday Times but that’s more-or-less it. (Incidentally, chart positions inside bookshops tend to reflect nothing more than publishers’ marketing budgets.)
Really, the only people who care about whether or not a book is officially Number One are the publishers. When I worked for a big publishing house, if a book from our division reached the top, an excited email was sent around announcing champagne in the breakout area at 5pm. For the abysmally-poorly-paid underlings such as myself, this was one of the most glamorous moments of the job. Champagne! And some – invariably beige – snacks. (Sadly, as the recession hit, the champagne changed to wine and beer, and the snacks to crisps. Eventually the drinks disappeared altogether, and we were left with nothing more than a celebratory email.)
In the battle of Pratchett vs. Cole, the publishers are none other than Doubleday and Headline, divisions of Random House and Hachette respectively. These are the biggest fishes in the publishing pond.