Words of the year

Words of the year
Audiobook sales soared while e-book sales tapered off. Harper Lee came out with a second novel, 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, and a long-lost Dr Seuss book was published posthumously. Millions of adults bought colouring books. The year in publishing defied expectations and overturned conventional wisdom. Here are some of the most surprising stories from the literary world in 2015.

Stay inside the lines
If 2015 stands out for nothing else, it will be remembered as the year when millions of adults unabashedly regressed to their preschool selves and rediscovered the allure of colouring books.

The reigning queen of colouring is Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford, whose intricately patterned adult colouring books have sold more than 16 million copies in some 40 countries, according to Penguin, her publisher. Her latest, Lost Ocean, which came out in October, has 1.3 million copies in print in the US.

There are more than 150 adult colouring books on the market, according to Publishers Weekly. Prominent authors like JK Rowling, Diana Gabaldon and George R R Martin have released colouring books based on their fantasy series.

Audiobooks are the new e-books
Binge listening appears to be on the rise, and audiobooks joined podcasts as one of the breakout creative mediums of the year. Sales of downloaded books grew 38 per cent in the first eight months of this year from the comparable period last year, according to the Association of American Publishers.

The growing use of smartphones means that practically everyone has an audiobook player on hand at all times. There are more titles than ever to choose from (25,787 audiobooks were released last year). And the medium is attracting prominent actors and celebrities. Now some classic stories are being updated and reissued in digital audio. This year Audible released a version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five narrated by James Franco and one of Pride and Prejudice narrated by Rosamund Pike.

A new novel, a new Atticus
Harper Lee’s unexpected sophomore novel, Go Set a Watchman, was controversial from the moment it was announced in February. Scholars and readers questioned why Lee, now 89, suddenly decided to publish a second book, 55 years after her beloved debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Skepticism grew further when it emerged that the manuscript for Watchman was discovered years earlier, and not in the fall of 2014, as Lee’s publisher and lawyer had originally announced.

But by far the most dramatic twist was the plot of the novel itself. When Watchman came out in July, readers were stunned to find that it depicted the hero of Mockingbird, the principled lawyer Atticus Finch, as a hardened segregationist. One of literature’s great embodiments of compassion and justice was toppled from his pedestal.

Runaway ‘Train’
Many, many thrillers have been pitched as “the next Gone Girl,” but only one seems to have fulfilled that promise: The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins’ twisted domestic suspense novel. Hawkins’s publisher, Riverhead, initially planned a first printing of 40,000 copies, a decent run for a novel by an author whose only other work was published under a pen name. When it came out in January, the book took off instantly, and sales never slowed. The novel has sold 4 million copies in the US and more than 6.5 million globally.

All the unread books
At the outset, 2015 looked like a blockbuster year for literary fiction, with new works by Jonathan Franzen, Salman Rushdie, John Irving, Umberto Eco and Anne Tyler and heavily hyped debut novels by Garth Risk Hallberg and literary agent Bill Clegg.

But no single book emerged as the must-read, most-talked-about title of the year, and literary critics were sharply divided over the merits of the year’s most prominent novels. While Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times praised Hallberg’s 900-plus-page debut, City on Fire, as “a big, stunning first novel,” a more mixed review by Louis Menand in The New Yorker said the novel was about 400 pages too long and argued that Hallberg “tried to squeeze too much juice out of the apple.”

The novel sold some 80,000 copies, a respectable figure for a debut, but far short of the sky-high expectations prompted by the advance Hallberg received, close to $2 million. Many readers, it seems, were still busy with last year’s breakout, Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel, All the Light We Cannot See. The book, which came out in May 2014, sold more than 1 million copies last year. In 2015, it won the Pulitzer Prize, and Doerr’s publisher, Scribner, shipped some 2.3 million more.

They finally found it
Sometime in the 1950s, most likely, Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss, wrote and illustrated a story about a boy and a girl who are paralysed by indecision in a pet store. He never took it to his editor, and it was eventually stashed in a box with discarded sketches and a folder of castoff ideas labelled “Noble Failures.”

In 2013, his widow and his former assistant found it and realised they had a nearly complete book on their hands. That book, What Pet Should I Get?, came out this year, 24 years after his death, a delightful and unexpected coda to his celebrated career.


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