The world is made of numbers. Talk to the mathematicians and they’ll tell you that anything can be reduced to arithmetic. Computer programmers will explain that nothing moves in cyberspace without binary digits changing. The pulse is a numeric value, as is blood pressure and the rate at which air moves into and out of your lungs. Statistics have taken over the universe. When I took a fitness test recently – blow into a tube, run on the spot, have my weight recorded, my body fat index measured, checks made on how easy it was for me to bend and touch the floor - I was amazed by the amount of sheer data that emerged. Reams of the stuff. My life in figures - a portrait of Finch in equation, table, and chart. Everything, it seems, can be turned into numbers.
So too in the world of culture. How many entrants were there to the last Cardiff International Poetry Competition? 10,856. What’s the population of the UK - 61,414, 062. How many viewers did the World Cup England vs. Germany achieve? Eighteen million. A recent episode of Lewis attracted seven million. The TV production of Martin Amis’s super-popular cult novel Money pulled in one point one. As a people we are certainly consumers of small screen culture.
However, it’s not the same when you get to printed matter. Book production may be up with more new titles reaching market now than at any time since world war two but we appear to be spreading their consumption ever thinner. The world’s leading book awards like the Man Booker and the Orange normally get the names of authors and their books into the minds of most literate people. Sale should rocket- and in a way they do. But not as spectacularly as one might hope. Andrea Levy’s Small Island which came out fifteen years ago has to date sold 834,958 copies. Could do better.
Mass market best sellers – beach reads, thrillers, paperbacks with mirror covers that spin on stands at airports and in Tesco – can manage half a million copies in a good year. Literary novels, the more serious ones, sell considerably less. A first novel by a new starter can shift a few thousand copies across the whole of the UK and that is if the author is lucky. New Welsh interest novels do eight hundred or so on average. Poetry, that marker of all great civilisations, sells even less. A new UK promoted poet might sell into four figures but mostly don’t. If you are Wales-based then it’s less than half that total. Booklets, poetry’s mainstay, move in the low hundreds.
Around here all sales count, a thing worth remembering next time you attend an event. Buy the book, someone has to.
An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 28th August, 2010. #162