Joanna Williams

When did publishers stop caring what their readers actually want?

Elliot Page, whose memoir Page Boy, has faced disappointing sales (Credit: Getty images)

It was easy to choose books for my young nieces and nephews this Christmas. First, I ruled out stories about boys who think they are girls, girls who dream of having their breasts removed, and pet rabbits unhappy at being misgendered.

Then I rejected books telling toddlers how to be anti-racist and older children how to be allies to their black classmates. Feminist manuals on women who changed the world, all of which feature at least one woman who was actually male, went the same way as history books that divide the past into tales of victimised black people and evil white people. Worthy tomes about climate change, rising sea levels and Greta Thunberg were also discarded. By this point, with so few books remaining, the choice was all but made for me.

It turns out I am not alone in this book-selection method. Although the publishing industry insists upon churning out fashionable woke thinking, the public is just not buying it. Take Page Boy, actor Elliot Page’s gender transition memoir. Page secured a whopping $3 million (£2.4 million) for the book but, according to the sales tracker BookScan, only 68,000 print copies have been sold. Readers, it seems, are less than enthusiastic. The same goes for Claudia Craven’s novel, Lucky Red. Only 3,500 copies of this ‘queer feminist western’ have shifted, despite Craven receiving a $500,000 (£400,000) advance.

Politics, not literary quality, become the primary concern

Carolyn Ferrell’s Dear Miss Metropolitan is a grim-sounding novel about three young black and biracial girls who are abducted by a man before being first abandoned and then traumatised by a racist society. Ferrell was reportedly paid more than $250,000 (£200,000) for this debut work but it has sold only 3,163 copies since first being published in 2021. Another flop is Rasheed Newson’s My Government Means to Kill Me, the story of a young gay black man in the mid-1980s.

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