Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Bestseller Lists

John Sutherland traces the rise of the bestseller list in The Sunday Times :
Amazon has one, as do Waterstone’s and the Richard & Judy Book Club. There’s now even a website, www.noveltracker.com , that updates figures and positions of the bestselling books every hour. All will have recorded Delia Smith’s latest cookbook on its way to becoming the fastest-selling title ever. We are fascinated by these charts, but there was a time, not so long ago, when we had none at all.

On April 21, 1974, and in this place (The Sunday Times Review, as it then was), the UK’s first definitive weekly national bestseller list was published.Keeping a finger on the nation’s reading pulse in this way had been routine in America since the 1890s. Americans loved their bestseller lists. Why? Because US society is organised around winners and losers. The UK loathed bestseller lists. Why? Because they were unEnglish. Books, we believed, did not compete against each other. Paying attention to a book not for its quality but for the quantity it sold was Yankee philistinism.

The Sunday Times resolved to change all that. It was, historically, the right time to do so. The early 1970s was an era of change, much of it painful. The IRA was blowing up everything that didn’t have a shamrock painted on it. “Who governs Britain?” asked the prime minister, Ted Heath, plaintively from his bunker at No 10. We had a three-day week, energy cuts, double-digit inflation. Times Newspapers, which had dared to embrace technological pro-cesses marginally more advanced than William Caxton’s, was at war with the print unions.

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