At long last, kids ruled in 2014. Books aimed at them have often figured in the top 10 of the all-year sales chart for printed books, but in the respective heydays of JK Rowling, Stephenie (Twilight) Meyer and Suzanne (The Hunger Games) Collins the rest of the elite group usually consisted of grown-up titles and there was always a chance that one such mega-seller – by Dan Brown, say, or EL James – would pip them to the top spot.
This year, in contrast, seven of the top tier books including the No 1 – by John Green, David Walliams and Jeff Kinney, plus four Minecraft manuals – are for children or young adults and an eighth, Guinness World Records, is predominantly aimed at them.
The Minecraft books (2, 5, 6, 7) are 80-page guides to a hugely successful video game in which players either build structures or battle enemies; launched in Sweden in 2009, it passed 100 million registered users in February this year. Published by Egmont (the UK arm of a Danish media group, the name possibly signalling Beethovenian ambitions), the four titles spearheading this new Viking invasion achieved combined sales of around 1,700,000.
What’s fascinating about this is that there should be a market for video game spin-off books at all, let alone such a stunning one. There’s no shortage of Minecraft tutorials on YouTube, in its own online domain, but rather reassuringly young gamers en masse evidently felt a need for a hardback handbook opened next to their PCs – a demand reflecting the relative robustness of manuals of all types and children’s books, compared to other genres whose print sales and revenue have been hit harder by readers’ inexorable (though possibly slowing) flight to ebooks.
Being a hit on screen first, or as well, is not a phenomenon confined to the Egmont quartet. Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid existed first in an online version before becoming a book. Walliams was a TV writer and actor long before taking up children’s fiction. Green has a sideline as a video blogger, or vlogger; whereas that’s Alfie Deyes’s (29) day job, with his jokey book as a spin-off.
If you took the Minecraft books away, 2014’s top 10 would look very similar to 2013’s: the latter also included Walliams’s and Kinney’s latest offerings, Guinness World Records and Dan Brown’s Inferno (then No 2, now No 8). The Fault in Our Stars, Green’s 2012 love story narrated by a teenager with cancer – widely seen as a YA book, though not officially classified as one – was at No 17 a year ago, and owes its spectacular subsequent ascent to the screen adaptation. Similarly, Gone Girl, also originally published in 2012, is at No 4 two and a half years later (it was No 3 in 2013) thanks to David Fincher’s film. Its author Gillian Flynn is the only woman to make the top 10.
Just like YouTube idols transformed into writers, reminiscing celebrities capitalise on their screen fame (usually on television) to win publishing deals; but the 2014 list confirms that the public long ago got out of the habit of seeing the resulting books as ideal Christmas presents. Besides the late Lynda Bellingham’s autobiography (12), two sports books, by Guy Martin (32) and Roy Keane (37), are the only hardback memoirs in the top 100. Yet publishers still seem in denial about the once-mighty subgenre’s slump, shelling out for much-hyped autumn offerings from John Cleese, Stephen Fry, John Lydon, Graham Norton and others that all flopped.
More surprising is the decline of cookery titles, which until recently gave crime and children’s fiction a good fight for the highest positions. The genre’s talisman Jamie Oliver, who up to 2012 routinely occupied a top 10 spot and for several years running was the Christmas-week No 1, now languishes at No 23. Mary Berry is ahead of him at No 13, but you’d expect her to be higher, given The Great British Bake Off’s vast audience.
The Hairy Bikers (47) and Tom Kerridge (77) are well below their 2013 positions, while other TV cooks who once seemed set for annual hits – Lorraine Pascale, Nigel Slater, Paul Hollywood – are nowhere to be seen. It appears counterintuitively possible that, while Minecraft addicts are turning to print manuals, their parents are turning away from them, increasingly getting their recipes online rather than from food-stained Jamie or Nigella recipe books on the kitchen table.
With memoirs and cookbooks both ailing, this has been another annus horribilis for non-fiction: ever fewer “serious” factual titles do well enough to make the top 100 – in an especially feeble 2014 showing, only Bill Bryson’s One Summer (54) really qualifies besides Alan Johnson’s Orwell prize-winner, This Boy – while at the other end of the spectrum once-bankable genres are losing their commercial potency. Both less serious and less sellable, then: not a good combination.
Non-fiction’s woes have allowed fiction to surge into the positions vacated, notably the places just below the top 10 where celebrity cooks and comedians formerly roamed in packs. Here can be found, not just commercial crowd-pleasers, but literary titles feted by critics and award judges – though some are missing.
There is, for example, no sign of the winners of the Folio, Baileys Women’s fiction or Man Booker prizes (George Saunders, Eimear McBride and Richard Flanagan, respectively), or indeed the 2013 Booker winner (Eleanor Catton) in paperback; all were probably seen as too forbidding. Yet the Costa awards did much better, with Kate Atkinson’s novel prizewinner (11) and Nathan Filer’s first novel and overall winner (26) both well placed. Shoppers also picked out two attractive losing finalists, Donna Tartt (14) from the Baileys shortlist and Karen Joy Fowler (42) from the Booker last six.
Amid these garlanded titles can also be found Girl Online (28), by (or rather “by”, as it was ghost-written) Zoe Sugg, AKA Zoella, another YouTube vlogger. The book, and Penguin’s handling of its authorship, have been much criticised but it pulled off something remarkable in being the third highest placed 2014 novel; outselling the likes of John Grisham, James Patterson, Sophie Kinsella and Jodi Picoult, even though these authors’ efforts were paperbacks available for most of the year and hers was a pricier late-November hardback.