Spread-sheeting the joy of reading

Spreadsheet-loving bibliophiles, I have a treat for you. Nielsen Bookscan have released a huge chunk of data on their book-sales over the last ten years, allowing us to simultaneously indulge in two of our great loves; the socially acceptable love of non-fiction books and the secretive and strange adoration of spreadsheets.

Nielsen Bookscan is the world’s largest book tracking service, and they collect transaction data directly from the tills of major book retailers. This data covers over 90% of all retail book purchases in the UK from 6,500 retailers, monitoring more than 220,000 titles selling each week. They have given us the spreadsheets which shows book sales since the same time in 1998, their top 100 books for 2010 and a further breakdown into Top 20 by type, including fiction and non-fiction hardback and paperback.  Broken down into individual worksheets, and arranged neatly with publisher, imprint and ISBN information, just waiting to be sorted and analysed and interpreted and turned into graphs.

I’ve gone all tingly just thinking about it.

I’m not the only person out there who loves spreadsheets, surely? My first response when faced with a complex question is usually to open Excel and really get graphing. This is helpful when working out budgets and complicated itineraries, but not so much when trying to decide what pub to go to.

(That said, I have one friend who once answered the question of, “Do you think they fancy me?” by carefully analysing, typing and documenting comments on blog by type and tone, and then sending through a spreadsheet with the carefully tabulated results, so I suspect there may be more number crunchers than we think out there.)

The Top-selling 100 books of all time (well, for the UK and since Nielsen records began in 1998 but that sounds nowhere near as good) can be downloaded here, via the Guardian website.

It is – even for non-number-loving-nerds – an interesting read. The Top 100 contains the usual suspects, with Dan Brown, Harry Potter and sparkling vampires taking up most of the top 10. It’s not until #20 we see the first non-fiction entry, Jeremy Clarkson’s World According to Clarkson.  Bill Bryson’s excellent Short History of Nearly Everything comes just after at #23 with more and more non-fiction poking its way in from there, including lots of cookbooks and also, somewhat depressingly, a lot of diet books.

Perhaps we listened to Delia a little too much.

Broken down into paperback and non-paperback, the non-fiction lists are even more interesting. Paperback stars include Eat, Pray, Love (there’s food again) and lots of scientific explanations, whereas their glamorous hardback cousins include far more cookbooks and biographies, suggesting that we like big glossy pictures of both our food and our celebrities. That or biographies and cookbooks make better gifts than diet books, which appear exclusively and amusingly only on the less weighty paperback list.

Of course, the data here would differ from the Australian data (which I can only dream of receiving a spreadsheet of) but it’s still an interesting snapshot of what we have been reading. If you’d asked me for my guess at the top selling non-fiction book of the last decade, I wouldn’t have guessed Clarkson. Would you? I also wouldn’t have guessed that two diet books would outsell the first cookery book and that Gillian McKeith would be in the top 30.

There is a downside to all this data, I had planned to pick out a cookbook this week but I’m now inundated by information and different titles. If only there were some way to sort all this information – oh wait, there is. To Excel,  and let the graphing begin!

Or I could just ask you all. Any recommendations for a good cookbook for an enthusiastic but imprecise chef who likes to improvise and hates having to follow long tedious lists?

…I’m going to graph it anyway. Just a little. While I am waiting for a response. Honest.

Required Reading – the Most Popular Aussie Novel Survey

Ever expressed an off-the-cuff opinion and realised, with a sinking heart, you were talking to an expert? Ever wish you’d boned up more – or at all – before an exam? Ever turned up confident to a job interview and sat there squirming as you realised they expected far more, and you were woefully unprepared and probably under-qualified?

Have you ever cringed, really cringed, at how ill-informed you have just been revealed to be? Well, now you know how I feel after completing the Boomerang Books Most Popular Aussie Novel Survey.

Ow. I really hadn’t realised that I had missed out on that many novels.

Boomerang Books have launched their Most Popular Aussie Novel Survey to narrow down 120 of Australian authors’ best known titles, with the aim of finding out which novels are the most popular with readers. Their criteria for working out the popularity is pretty simple – the survey just asks did you actually finish the book.

After all, many books are bought or gifted, not all are read. I myself have a simply stunning set of Hilary Mantel bookends, as well as a disturbing large pile of novels in my “need-to-finish” pile – which is right next to my “donate to charity” pile. Not all the books get finished. Some do not pass Go, go directly to the local Op Shop.

So, you would think with giving up on books I would have plenty of time to get through the most acclaimed Australian novels, but apparently not. I won’t divulge my shameful strike rate, but I will tell you that  if this had been a percentage based exam, I would have failed it. In some cases, I had never even heard of the author. In others – lots of others – I had, but had read some other title they had written. Surely that must be worth half points?

I can come up with plenty of excuses. I grew up in Ireland so I would neither have studied many of the novels or have heard as much of the hype when they were released. I am also more of a non-fiction fan and when I dip my toe into novels I tend to read for fun, but the amount of books unread on that survey horrified me.  Still, it has also galvanised me – now that I have a handy list of them, I can make a start on getting through them. The big question is, of course, which ones should I go for first?

If you fancy taking your own shot at deciding Australia’s most popular novels, and possibly winning more books than you can read over the festive season, you can find the survey here. The grand prize for entry is a $500 book voucher, more than enough to keep you puzzling over what books you should buy until New Years, not to mention pondering the ethical dilemma that – given that Christmas is the season of giving and all –do you spend all of the money on yourself or just spend MOST of it on yourself. There’s still plenty of time – the survey closes on 30 November, and the site will be counting down the Top 24 from the first of December right through until Christmas Eve.