Irish readers choose miserable current affairs over 'misery lit'
CULTURE SHOCK:ON RTÉ RADIO One’s Saturday Viewlast week, the chief book buyer for Eason pointed to a rather startling fact. Of the top 20 bestselling books in the UK that week, just one – The Guinness Book of Records– was non-fiction, writes FINTAN O’TOOLE
Meanwhile, of the top 20 bestselling books in Ireland, 10 were non-fiction. This suggests two interesting things. One is that the Irish book market is becoming increasingly distinct from the British market. The other is that the most striking feature of the division is that serious books about politics and economics have an audience here.
In relation to the growing distinctiveness of the Irish market, it is worth noting the books that are selling well in the UK but seem to be making little headway here. Some of them are pretty obvious. There’s no particular reason Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britainshould shift large quantities in Ireland. A London memoir such as Jenny Worth’s Farewell to the East Endwould have to be of extraordinary literary quality were it to capture the imaginations of many Irish readers. So, some of the difference between the markets is simply a matter of the inevitable narrowness of local concerns.
Where it gets interesting, however, is when you look at books that are inextricably linked to the TV culture that, whether we like to admit it or not, is shared between the islands. TV-related books such as Jeremy Clarkson’s Driven to Distraction, the other Top Gear spin-off, Where’s Stig?, Ant and Dec’s Ooh! What a Lovely Pair!or memoirs by comedians Frankie Boyle, Jo Brand and Peter Kay are all prominent among the British bestsellers. None of them has large sales here. The vast exposure in our living rooms doesn’t seem to make us want to read about British celebs. Even a showbiz memoir with a strong Irish connection, Coleen Nolan’s Upfront and Personal, is selling in the UK but not, apparently, here.
The second striking difference is the balance between fiction and non-fiction. Take the market leader in popular fiction, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.In theory, as a global product produced by an American, it ought to have a similar appeal in the UK and Ireland. It is indeed still selling very well in both countries. In Britain, however, it sold more than four times as many copies as the best-selling paperback non-fiction book, Cassie Harte’s memoir I Did Tell, I Did. In Ireland it actually sold 250 copies fewer than the non-fiction paperback bestseller, Shane Ross’s The Bankers.Who needs Brown’s elaborate fictional conspiracies and imaginary controlling elites when we have the real thing coming out our ears?
The final point that leaps out of the respective bestseller lists is the difference within the non-fiction categories. It’s not just that much more non-fiction is being sold here. It’s that it’s also much more serious and immediate. The British non-fiction paperback list is still dominated by misery lit, cuddly heart-warming memoir and celebrity autobiography. The only book that could be said to relate to contemporary events – and the connection is at this stage rather distant – is Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats.In Ireland, four of the top five are analyses of contemporary economics and politics (by Shane Ross, David McWilliams, Matt Cooper and myself).
There is obviously a range of factors contributing to this state of affairs. It helps that traditional bookshops still matter here. In the UK, supermarket chains such as Tesco, using books as loss leaders, are not just threatening the survival of the bookshop, but are increasingly shaping the bestseller lists by shifting huge volumes of a very narrow range of titles – celeb memoirs, misery lit and popular women’s fiction – at ridiculously low prices. This process is under way here, but it has not yet gone to the same extremes. At the same time, and rather ironically, the increasing differentiation of the Irish book market from that in the UK owes a great deal to the acuity of English publishers. It is not accidental that the current assault on the bestseller lists of topical and political titles is led by Penguin Ireland, whose very existence is testament to a realisation that the Irish market is (a) different and (b) potentially quite lucrative. While many of the pioneering Irish publishers who have done so much to create the market here are under enormous pressure, Penguin Ireland can combine the on-the-ground knowledge of a local operation with the clout of a multinational.
It would have been difficult for a traditional Irish publisher to take the risk of hiring the National Concert Hall for the Four Angry Menevent that gave Penguin’s political titles such a lift.
The other factor is price. Publishers have cottoned on to the fact that the market here is not really among book collectors but among book readers. It is, in other words, essentially a paperback market. Thus, while a novel such as Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn was sold in the UK as a hardback, it was marketed here almost exclusively as a trade paperback. All the political books that are doing well at the moment have been published directly in the same format. Even if they’re far from cheerful, they’re reasonably cheap.
Factors like these, however, would mean very little if the readers were not there. Irish people still buy books. And they are willing, when the mood takes them, to buy serious books. This has long been the case, but it is particularly so now. While some conventional wisdom suggests that people are turned off by the doom and gloom of the current crisis, the Irish Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll this week indicates otherwise. It shows that while 18 per cent and 27 per cent of people respectively do feel that current affairs and politics are less important to them now, 45 per cent and 39 per cent feel that they are more so. The reasons for this increased engagement may be pretty grim, but it is good news for at least one industry.