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18 March 2020

How Hilary Mantel became a publishing phenomenon

On its launch her new novel The Mirror and the Light sold a copy every 2.7 seconds. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

On 21 May 2019, a billboard appeared in Leicester Square. It featured a Tudor rose and the slogan “So now get up”. There was no context, no release date, no website address or hashtag to follow. Fans of the author Hilary Mantel recognised the phrase from her 2009 novel Wolf Hall. Excitement grew.

On 5 March this year, The Mirror and the Light, the third instalment of Mantel’s historical trilogy, which tells the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of Henry VIII, was published by Fourth Estate. It follows Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), which have been adapted into a BBC miniseries and a Royal Shakespeare Company stage production. Together, the books have sold more than 1.5 million print copies worldwide.

The Mirror and the Light sold a remarkable 95,141 print copies in its first week. This is the highest opening week of sales for a work of adult fiction since Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, sold 103,000 copies in September 2019. According to research from Nielsen BookScan, as of 10 March, a copy of The Mirror and the Light was sold every 2.7 seconds and 5p in every £1 spent on books in the UK went towards a copy of the novel. At Waterstones, pre-orders of The Mirror and the Light were up 50 per cent on The Testaments

“This is the most significant publishing event of 2020. It is the book we’ve been most asked about by our customers over the past eight years,” says Bea Carvalho, a fiction buyer at Waterstones. Last November, anticipating the book’s huge success, the bookseller produced a limited edition gift card redeemable against only The Mirror and the Light  – the first time it has sold such an item. According to Carvalho, almost half of the gift cards sold were redeemed on publication day and “most of the others” have since been used. On similarly big titles, Waterstones would usually expect 60 to 70 per cent of conventional pre-orders to be redeemed over the same period.

This early success far exceeds the first-week sales of Bring Up the Bodies, which were 53,000. Sitting above The Mirror and the Light is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird prequel, Go Set a Watchman, which sold 168,455 copies in its 2015 opening week and is arguably the bestselling hardback literary fiction title since UK records began in 1998. A Nielsen researcher points out that there is no industry-wide definition of “literary” as opposed to “commercial” fiction, although one can of course group titles according to personal judgement. 

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Data provided by Nielsen shows that the male bestselling “literary” novelists have nowhere near the selling power – in terms of both first-week hardback sales and all-time sales – of Mantel, Atwood or Lee. Of the male writers, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (2007) has the highest first-week sales, at 13,000 copies. Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (2011) and Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2007) each sold 5,000 copies in their opening week. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001) are also huge bestsellers – but their successes came only after their Booker Prize wins, a sales boost known in the industry as a “Booker bounce”. Martin Amis’s most commercially successful novel since 1998, The Pregnant Widow (2010), doesn’t come close. 

Following their Booker Prize wins in 2009 and 2012, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies saw sales increase by 463 and 467 per cent respectively. If The Mirror and the Light were to win this year’s Booker, as many reviewers have suggested it ought to (which would make Mantel the first author to have won the award three times), would its “Booker bounce” be just as significant? New readers to Mantel’s work will have the trilogy’s first two volumes to wade through before they dash out for the final instalment.

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This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning