A minnow with bite: what's Backstory's market share?

Coming up

Bookseller award

Thanks to the kind people who asked for an update on the independent bookshop of the year award. We didn’t win the London gong, which was announced this week and went to the Brick Lane Bookshop, which I encourage you to visit. They publish a lovely anthology of all the entries to their short story competition which is well worth a purchase, as are their very nice tote bags. It was an honour to be shortlisted after only 16 months, and there’s always next year!


MARKET SHARE, like away days and sophisticated tax avoidance structures, is usually something only big companies have to worry about. The joy of being the little guy is that we get to rave about books we love, regardless of whether they sell 100 copies, ten copies or one. (Most of the time, we’d be very happy with ten copies.)

But regular readers will have noticed that when we really love a book, we’re not afraid to get behind it in a big way. We’ll be banging on about it in the newsletter, we might have a big pile in the window and, if you stop by the shop, chances are you’ll hear one of us singing its praises, whether you’re chatting to Denise over your morning coffee or vibing with Megan over a glass of wine.

So the other week I thought it would be fun to crunch the numbers and work out our market share for some of the titles we really took to heart last year. And, since I know you tend to devour editions of this newsletter with behind-the-scenes data, I thought you might like to see the results.

The exercise was surprisingly simple, thanks to our whizzy (if slightly 1980s-looking) ePos system and the analytics firm Nielsen, whose BookScan figures capture total weekly UK sales of every book from most bookshops, including indies, chains and Amazon. Our system spits out our annual sales, Nielsen gives the total UK sales: do a bit of basic division and you’ve got market share.

I can’t tell you Backstory’s total share of the UK book market, but I can tell you it’s miniscule. Roughly half of all books are sold by Amazon. Even leaving that aside, there are still a surprising number of physical locations to buy books. WHSmith has 1,000 branches, on the high street, in train stations and at airports. Waterstones has another 320. Then there are the supermarkets. Even within the comparatively small indie sector, there are now more than 1,000 bookshops to choose from (thank goodness).

So by rights we should need a lot of decimal points to show our market share. Nought point nought nought etc etc etc…

But there are a few books where we’re punching significantly above our weight. And pleasingly, they are some the titles that the team and I have championed the most.

We accounted for 2% of all copies sold in the UK last year of Kala, a brilliantly dark debut novel by Colin Walsh. It was our book of the month in July and Colin wrote a lovely piece for the first issue of our magazine about the current boom in Irish writing. If you haven’t read it yet, do pick it up. It’s a great tale about a group of teenage best friends reunited as adults in their Irish hometown, when secrets from their past begin to emerge.

Similarly, Backstory had 2% of the total market for A Waiter in Paris, one of my picks of 2023. This is a lovely memoir that doubles as social commentary by Edward Chisholm, who moved to France and set his sights on working in a bistrot despite speaking almost no French. A great read, and the sort of book anybody would be delighted to receive as a little present.

20 signed copies = 1 glass of wine

Staggeringly, we sold 5% of all UK paperback copies of Milk Teeth, the second novel by Jessica Andrews. We didn’t do an event (though we had done one for the hardback earlier in the year) or any kind of promotion, but we did keep on putting it in people’s hands month after month. I thought it was the perfect book for last summer, given it is set between London and Barcelona and has a gorgeously enticing summer street scene cover. But then I decided it was the perfect book to get us through the winter blues.

But perhaps the stat I find wildest is our 1% share for Alice Winn’s In Memoriam. It was a Sunday Times bestseller and was Waterstones Novel of the Year, so there were plenty of other places people might have bought it. But our sheer enthusiasm for this book won out and through day-to-day sales alone (our — sold out — event is next week!), we persuaded you to buy more than 400 hardbacks, a slightly mad number for a shop our size.

Fun though these stats are, they are very much the exception, not the rule. And I am just as happy to be the 9,744th person to tell you that Lessons in Chemistry is really good, actually.

But whatever book you pick, please give us a go. You might be the nought point one percent we really need today.