Wales Book Prize entangled in sales row

This week saw the announcement of the winners of the Wales Book prize. It should have been an occasion to celebrate the finest work by authors from Wales writing in the Welsh or English language, but instead the event has been tainted by a dispute over sales figures for the winning books.

Neilsen – a company specialising in market research and measurement – disclosed that half of the books on the shortlist had sold less than 100 copies. According to Nielsen:

  • The overall winner, Diary of the Last Man by the poet Robert Minhinnick, had sales figures of just over 200
  • All that is Wales (a collection of essays byM Wynn Thomas) which won the English language creative non-fiction award, sold 34 copies up to June this year

The English language fiction award winner, Crystal Jean’s  Switches Are My Kryptonite achieved sales of 49 copies.

Wales-based publishers have been quick to dispute the figures, complaining that Neilsen failed to take account of sales from small independent bookshops and book fairs. They’ve also criticised BBC Wales for placing too much weight on Neilsen’s assessment.

Are the publishers correct and we are reading too much into this data?

Maybe not. Poetry collections tend to see lower sales than fictional works but realistically even when the additional sales are taken into account for the fictional works, there is little evidence that these books are attracting readers in any significant number. The best-selling title on the shortlist reached just 4,000 sales. Still very modest.

It’s hard not to sympathise with the authors and their publishers who are now feeling bruised by this debacle. All the locally based publishers are modest sized businesses with equally modest marketing budgets so they pick their authors carefully and nurture them well, often focusing on a niche. But it’s a struggle for them to get  the attention of mainstream media for these books. As Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, said in an interview with me last year, the Welsh book scene doesn’t have anywhere near the presence and visibility enjoyed by authors from Scotland or Ireland.  

Even more worrying, the book sellers in Wales don’t seem to be throwing anywhere near enough weight behind local authors. Last week I was in a Waterstones book store in Cardiff (the capital city of Wales). This is the only dedicated book shop in the centre of the city. Did they have any display promoting the Wales Book of the Year? None that I could see (unless maybe it was buried in the deepest recesses of the shop somewhere between the sections on how to care for your pet dragon and macrame for idiots). If a store like this doesn’t promote indigenous writing, why should we expect sellers in England or Scotland to do so?

The owner of Octavo’s bookshop, an independent seller in Cardiff, said in response to Neilsen’s figures that more needed to be done to bring books like these to the attention of the reading public. She suggested reading groups, extracts in magazines etc. All good ideas but, I don’t see that it’s nearly enough. Unless the big boys get behind these publishers and authors and give them shelf space, they’ll face many years on the fringe.

 

 

 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on June 28, 2018, in Bookends, Wales Book of the Year, Writing Wales and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. When I travel to new places and I go to bookshops, I immediately seek out shelves dedicated to local authors. They don’t always have them of course, but I think more promotion of local (however you define that) could be done by bookshops.

    BTW sorry I’ve been a bit AWOL. I struggle these days to keep up with blogs, reading and life – particularly with elderly parents in town, and both my children in another town, and my volunteer jobs. Stop the world!

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  2. I’ve heard from at least one lesser-known author where the price to get a book on a feature table in Waterstones has been known to be expensive, often out of the price range of most small publishers and self pubbed authors. That was a few years ago and I dont know if Waterstones have changed their policy or pricing structure.

    Unless booksellers in places like Waterstones are given the chance to promote local authors/fiction etc without having to follow the head office line and charge, then they will never look to promote. Even removing the pricing structure relies on there being at least one bookseller in the store with an interest in promoting local.

    I work in Shropshire so am in the border countries. I cant think of a single Welsh author or someone writing about Wales from the last 80 years ago, except perhaps Ellis Peters writing about Cadfael. When I hear of Welsh Poets I think of Wilfred Owen etc, so the War Poets, which do not attract me on so many levels.

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  3. Ugh – this is sad and makes me mad that they’re focusing on this. Isn’t the point of prizes to add gravitas and publicity to the books regardless of sales figures?

    It’s like when films are released in limited showings to get them into the awards season right?

    UGH – I’m also shocked that that Waterstones doesn’t have a Welsh/local section. Even our big bad Barnes and Nobles in the US has “local history/fiction” sections in most if not all of their locales.

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  4. That’s quite sad about Cardiff Waterstones. Aberdeen’s not even the capital but it embraces every opportunity to get out the Scottishness, and makes displays of Scottish authors as well extra ones for the very local authors. The whole sales figure thing is really bizarre. Half of me wants to get hold of a book that has sold hardly any copies to see what all the fuss is not about, but then like the film no one is queuing to see, when funds a limited it’s harder to take a gamble.

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    • You’ve reminded me of another issue I noticed when I was at the awards event last year – the price of the non fiction contenders. They were in a price bracket that would make a lot of people think twice about buying them. Admittedly the most expensive one did have a lot of glorious full plate images but still…..

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, the content of this post really surprised me. In the States we talk about how sales get boosted when someone buys a huge order of a book, which lands it on the New York Times bestseller list, which then makes people want to buy the book. Meanwhile that large order of books is squirreled away somewhere just to game the system. This sounds like just no one is reading Welsh books, and that makes me sad.

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    • that’s awful if people are buying in bulk just to manipulate the figures. I think something like that used to happen with sales of records when there were such things as the singles charts. But the people who managed the ‘charts’ got wise to it and put systems in place to prevent it. You’d have thought the New York Times was a big enough organisation (and one concerned about its reputation) to have similar systems

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  6. What an interesting post! I think the sales figures should not have been released, and I wonder why? Sales don’t always equate with merit anyway. But I do think it’s a shame that Welsh literature doesn’t have a bigger profile.

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  7. I feel there is something fishy going on with this. I have never seen any Neilsen figures for books that won other awards.

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  8. For me, the interesting question is, why did Neilsen choose to disclose this data that they usually only release to people who pay for the service. It seems a spiteful thing to do, as if to say, these books are no good and the sales prove it, they should have chosen bestsellers instead.
    Anyway, hopefully it will be true what they say about adverse publicity – any publicity is good publicity?

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  9. Politics and publishing, always frustrating. You make some very good points here.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Very interesting! I’ve often wondered what sales figures were like for books and kinda wish we had access to more information. I think there are so many prize lists now that only really dedicated readers pay any attention to them. I looked at the Saltire Awards for last year (Scotland’s premier fiction award, so they tell me) with a view to reading them, and discovered most of them had hardly any reviews on Goodreads despite winning the prize. And frankly, once I’d read the blurbs and the “look inside” samples on Amazon, I decided not to read any of them either. It seems sometimes as if publishers use these prizes to promote books on their lists that haven’t sold rather than the best out there… understandable, but is it effective?

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    • You nudged me to take a look at Goodreads and any reviews the fiction book might have had. it has just three reviews – one 5 star, one 4 star and one two-star, did not finish. All of them seem to have got a free copy……

      Good point about whether people pay attention to prize lists. I think there are a lot of dedicated readers who do keep a close eye on the big prizes like the Costa, the National Book Prize and the Booker. But your average reader probably reacts more to the book itself being heavily promoted in the shops with the ‘winner of’ sticker on the cover.

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