It was trade publication, the Bookseller, that first noted the rise of what it called the “brainy backlist”. It also highlighted a concomitant fall in the sales of the books that had been such a staple of publishers’ catalogues – celebrity biographies. We are turning away from glitzy but disposable stories of fame and excess and towards more serious, thoughtful, quiet books that help us understand our place in the world. Analysts at the Bookseller parsed data from Nielsen BookScan, and saw over the past five years a dramatic rise in the sales of “long-tail” nonfiction titles, often works on politics, economics, history or medicine that attempted to synthesise or challenge received thinking on the subject. Kiera O’Brien, charts and data editor at the Bookseller, and one of the authors of the initial study, is convinced the publishing landscape has changed over the past few years. “It’s a rare thing for nonfiction to carry on selling like this,” she says. “Often fiction will, when there’s a film adaptation or something like that, but nonfiction tends to be very much of its time. Now it feels like we’ve broken that mould.”

    These are febrile, unpredictable times, with society facing new challenges and quandaries each day, from the rise of populist politics to the migrant crisis to climate change. Mark Richards, publisher at John Murray Press, sees the return to serious works of nonfiction as a response to the spirit of the age. “We’re living in a world that suddenly seems less certain than it did even two years ago, and the natural reaction is for people to try and find out as much about it as possible,” he says. “People have a hunger both for information and facts, and for nuanced exploration of issues, of a sort that books are in a prime position to provide.”

    The idea that Richards sets out here – that books retain a special place in our culture, an aura that means we look to them first when searching for deep truths about the world – rings particularly true when you scan through the list of those works of nonfiction that we’ve been buying consistently over recent years. From Siddhartha Mukherjee on cancer to Peter Frankopan on the history of trade, from Elizabeth Kolbert on extinction to Atul Gawande on end-of-life care, great nonfiction offers us levels of detail, breadth of scope and depth of engagement that we simply don’t get from other media.

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