Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Victorians has sold 734 copies. Will publishers take note?

The Brexiteer’s book has sales to match its awful reviews. He’s not the first politician who has struggled to flog a book

Jacob Rees-Mogg: time for a recount? Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty

Jacob Rees-Mogg: time for a recount? Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty

 

Let’s play a game: is this from a review of the Conservative MP and arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg’s book The Victorians or not? “Morally repellent”, “abysmal” and “soul-destroying”, “reads like it was written by a baboon”, “too pompous and too cliche-ridden”, and “a boring tome” full of “little more than commonplace cliches”. Answer: yes to all but the last. That was Benito Mussolini’s zinger about Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Who knew he had it in him?

After historians eviscerated Rees-Mogg’s 500-odd pages of pompous jingoism, it seems that the public were not even curious: The Victorians sold a dismal 734 copies in the UK in its opening week, to reach the lofty heights of 379th spot on Nielsen’s book charts. Half of those were sold in the English midlands (15 per cent) and London (35 per cent), suggesting that whichever bookshop is closest to parliament had a very good week. Southwestern England, home to Rees-Mogg’s constituency of North East Somerset, could account for only 22 copies. Alas, milord will have to demand a higher tithe from the serfs this year.

As the first week tends to set the pace of sales for books that can’t rely on positive word of mouth, it can safely be said that The Victorians has not proved an overwhelming success for its publisher, Penguin Random House. It is not bad for Rees-Mogg, who reportedly spent only about 300 hours writing the book in praise of mostly 19th-century male politicians, to the exclusion of the era’s scientists, engineers, artists, writers, feminists and even women (bar Queen Victoria). He was paid £12,500, or about €14,250, putting his hourly rate at about €47.50.

It is not that politicians can’t shift books in Britain. Boris Johnson’s boisterous tome The Churchill Factor (about a prime minister who won the Nobel Prize in Literature) sold 7,006 copies in its first week in 2014 and reached 30,000 in one week around Christmas after positive reviews. But being leader of the Liberal Democrats was not enough to help Vince Cable, whose debut novel, Open Arms, sold 68 copies in its opening week, in 2017. And in the same week in 2003 that he was deposed as leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith’s novel The Devil’s Tune sold 18 whole copies, a figure so dismal that it is possible even his mum didn’t buy one.

Before The Victorians was published there was some sputtering about the column inches given to reviews of it, to which it is worth asking: how is informed criticism of a book more offensive than its actual existence? Why was a tome so thunderously puked on by historians even published at all? It says nothing good about the priorities of big British publishers, who um and ah over no-names and wait for tiny independents to spot their talent but are happy to fling cash at the fleshy embodiment of Scrooge McDuck.

This is not just a case of another politician writing a bad book. There is a bigger problem at play – and it is cheering that readers, at least, seem to be on to it. – Guardian