The gap between publishingâ€™s rich and poor continues to widen, as figures from Nielsen BookScan reveal that the top 50 authors account for more than 13% of UK sales.
Childrenâ€™s authors dominate the top five print sellers, with Julia Donaldson leading the pack for the sixth year in succession with sales of Â£14m, followed by David Walliams with Â£11m and JK Rowling with Â£8m. Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley, the writing duo behind Penguinâ€™s bestselling series of Ladybird parodies, are in fourth with Â£7.4m, with Jamie Oliverâ€™s collection of healthier recipes, Everyday Super Food, powering him into fifth with Â£7.3m.
But while publishingâ€™s top table may be groaning with riches, the helpings get much smaller as you move down the list. The Bookseller estimates that the UK print sales counted by Nielsen come from 55,000 authors, meaning that the 50 writers who accounted for 13% of the Â£1.49bn in sales represent less than 0.1%. The top 500 â€“ or top 1% â€“ of authors clocked up 32.8% of sales, while the top 10% amassed 57%. And the gap is getting wider: according to the Bookseller, the Â£199m netted by the top 50 authors represents a 21% increase on 2014, compared to a 6.6% rise for the UK print market as a whole.
The figures come as momentum builds around Philip Pullmanâ€™s protest over the Oxford literary festivalâ€™s failure to offer authors appearance fees, with writers including Linda Grant, Joanne Harris and Francesca Simon among a host of authors calling for a boycott of events which expect writers to appear for free.
According to Nicola Solomon, the Society of Authors chief executive, the figures tie in with last yearâ€™s Authorsâ€™ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) survey, which showed that many authors struggle to make a living from writing. â€œWe are not putting in any special pleading here,â€ Solomon said, â€œbut falling author incomes, and the narrowing of what money there is towards top â€˜brand nameâ€™ authors, is not healthy for the publishing industry, nor for society as a whole.â€
The problem goes wider than the books industry, she continued, citing contemporary celebrity culture and the need for publishers, as businesses, to â€œproduce what the public wants. Bookshops are suffering, and online retailers tend to focus attention on bestselling titles through recommendations, so people arenâ€™t able to see the wide range of titles that are available.â€
But â€œincreasingly profit-drivenâ€ publishers should shoulder some of the blame as well, Solomon added. â€œPublishers need to take more risks with diverse titles and authors, and give more support to midlist and backlist titles.â€ She called for emerging writers to be supported by â€œdecent advancesâ€ and for the industry as a whole to fulfil its responsibility to put new and diverse names in front of the public.
â€œBookshops, reviewers and festivals need to ensure they make space for books outside the bestseller lists,â€ Solomon said. â€œFor example, festival organisers should make a commitment that every time they programme a big-name author they put a smaller author alongside.â€
Readers can also help, she added, by â€œreading more widely, reading more in translation and from writers of diverse backgroundâ€. â€œWe need a flourishing range of diverse voices to inspire imagination and to create the fabulous material, from literature to text books, poetry to films, for which Britain is so justly famed and which underpins and supports our creative industries.â€