Navigating the modern business of book publishing

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2009 Bestsellers and wrap-up

The Brain That Changes Itself - Neural plasticity was the surprise hot topic at the SWF 2009

I’ve sat down to write about the SWF every day this week but there’s been so much buzzing around in my head I hardly know where to start. The Bookseller & Publisher came out with some interesting figures on the festival though, which I thought were worth a closer look.

According to festival bookseller Gleebooks, the top 10 bestselling books at the festival were:

The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
A Case of Exploding Mangoes – Mohammed Hanif
The Thing Around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the Human Condition – Richard Holloway
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 20th Century – George Friedman
The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas
Stuff White People Like – Christian Lander
Warchild – Emmanuel Jal
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale

Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself sold almost double the next biggest book, Commonwealth Best First Novel Winner, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. It also smashed the record for the highest selling book in the festival’s history by 60%. I seem to remember someone telling me beforehand that they expected it to be the big book at the festival, so kudos to you, whoever it was. Nice tip. I am sorry to say that I didn’t follow up the advice and attend Norman Doidge’s session, but my interest has been piqued and you should expect a post about his book soon.

I was very glad to see Mohammed Hanif’s book come in second as I spent considerable energy trying to raise booksellers’ interest in this novel when it first came out a year or so ago. Needless to say, it didn’t take off immediately, but what a difference a big award can make to book sales. For any fans of Catch 22, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a must read. Political satire has sadly gone out of fashion recently–perhaps it was just too depressing in the Bush/Howard era–but even more rare to western readers is muslim political satire. Salman Rushdie is perhaps the only author I can think of who has tried his hand at it, though I stand to be corrected. At any rate, Hanif does a wonderful job revealing both the absurdity and horror surrounding the mysterious death of Pakistan’s Military Dictator General Zia ul Haq in 1988.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche was actually the highest selling author at the festival, with all three of her books selling well. It is always nice to see a book of short stories in a bestseller list. The Thing Around Your Neck is one of the better collections of stories I have read in recent years as well. They make excellent reading next to Nam Le’s The Boat, which examines similar themes of cultural identity and dislocation. Kazuo Ishiguro had some interesting things to say about short stories in relation to his own collection Nocturnes during his satelite appearance at the festival but I will write about all of this in more detail in a later post.

It is interesting to see Richard Holloway’s meditations on modern spirituality coming attracting so much attention. He certainly presents an intriguing figure: a former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, Holloway has lost in faith in traditional religions, believing them to be manmade. But he does not side easily with the atheist camp either, who he sees as being too certain of their own beliefs. Rather he treads a more uncertain middle path that attempts to hold onto some of the more comforting aspects of religion while conceding the rationalist argument that God and Heaven cannot exist. Philosophically he is a particular kind of rationalist, known as a pragmatist. He asserts that even though religious myths may be untruthful, they still have the power to help us “cope with life” and are therefore valuable. Between the Monster and the Saint is certainly a revealing look at spirituality without God, although I can’t help seeing it as a psychological rest stop on the philosophical journey away from religious faith towards rational atheism.

I won’t go into too much detail about the remaining books except to say how brilliant both Christian Lander and Christos Tsiolkas were in their sessions. Christian has one of the fastest wits I have ever seen and completely owned the stage. We’re going to see more of this guy, whether it be as a comic writer or even stand-up comedian. If you haven’t had a read of Stuff White People Like by now you are totally the wrong kind of white guy. Christos Tsiolkas impressed me with the depth of his discussion. We got an immediate sense, as he shuffled in his seat and took a deep breath before speaking, that his answers were very honest and personal. This is one of the things that make him such an impressive and important writer. He does not shy away from the darker aspects of his own nature or of his own society and if some people find his characters unlikeable, it is probably because they cut so close to the bone. He was quick to point out that he didn’t know the answers to the questions he raised in The Slap, and that such societal questions could only be answered by the kind of discussion his book was evidently causing.

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Categorised in: All Posts, Literary Events

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About Richard

Richard Bilkey has been selling, marketing and distributing books for over ten years, managing independent bookshops, a major online retailer and, most recently, one of Australia's largest Independent Book Distributors, Brumby Books.

Contact Richard directly at
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