Red Button Publishing

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Exploring the Unfinished: Is an unread bestseller still a success?

A little bit of interesting news from the world of ebook retailers has been bumped around the internet this week. Alongside the bestseller lists from the major ebook players (an interesting mix of mainstream and indie publications), there was the news that fewer than 50% of readers actually finished some of the bestselling titles of 2014. Only 44% made it to the end of Donna Tartt’s doorstop The Goldfinch, and a mere 28% made it to the end of 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup.

This comes as no surprise to anyone in publishing, or indeed anyone that reads a lot of books. Surely everyone has been guilty of snapping up the latest heavily reviewed modern classic, only to leave it languishing on a shelf, perhaps forever? The Japanese even have a word for this activity: tsundoku – buying books without actually reading them. The fact is that ebooks have made our reading habits so much more transparent. If you don’t finish a book, Amazon, Kobo et al. know about it. The advent of digital publishing has just proved what we all knew was the case all along.

Now, I’ve been wandering around with a slightly bookish swagger since reading about this list. You see, I read The Goldfinch cover to cover – well, first ebook page to last – and I also managed to squeeze in another monster this year, Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winning The Luminaries. But then I enjoyed both these books, so am I really a ‘better reader’ than the 56% who didn’t finish? Maybe they weren’t having as much fun as me?

However, there’s something else I have to confess – I hate giving up on a book. I have given up on just a handful of books in my lifetime. In fact, I have probably spent a lot of time reading books that I really wasn’t enjoying as a result  – more than others who don’t have my qualms about quitting. I recall a tortuous month reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man: I love Frankenstein with a passion, but I found The Last Man turgid, dull, almost painful. But I finished it. Maybe I should have given up?

Also interesting is what this says about publishing. Are we publishing the wrong things? Are some books just over-hyped? I had an interesting chat on Twitter with a couple of industry types about this yesterday and one wisely pointed out that nobody accuses the music industry of failing consumers if people skip the odd track on a hugely successful album by Taylor Swift. Why should books that go unfinished be tainted with failure? A good point. Books are complicated, challenging things. They require concentration, attention and emotional investment – some more than others. In today’s world of endless distractions, I am just grateful that people still think, even for one shining moment, that they should read those books, or that they might one day read those books. Because that is what will keep the book alive.

Caroline Goldsmith

What do you think? What books have challenged you this year? Are there books that have been sitting on your shelves for years just waiting for you to finish them. Tell us in the comments.

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One comment on “Exploring the Unfinished: Is an unread bestseller still a success?

  1. Paul Blaney
    December 11, 2014

    I did in fact finish The Goldfinch but it was quite a slog. Could have done with a slightly ruthless editor. I keep looking at my copies of works by the Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, but it never quite seems to be the moment.

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This entry was posted on December 11, 2014 by in On digital publishing, Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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