The Great UK / US Book Divide

Reading & Writing


The modern mantra is to say that globalisation has shrunk the world, turning cities into identical reproductions of each other, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s true. I make it a habit to regularly check out American and English Top 50 book lists and  compare them, to try and gauge what we’re all reading, but recently I’ve been surprised by the widening gulf between our cousin-countries and what we’re enjoying in fiction. If anything, we’re more separate than we have been in decades.

Googling the bestsellers is a trick in itself, as every search brings up something different, but as far as I can ascertain, the Top 10 UK fiction titles are listed thus, and don’t really need authors’ names attached to them, because you can see exactly what they are from their titles:

Tangled Lives

Broken Angels

Sleighbells In The Snow

The Husband’s Secret

Meet Me Under The Mistletoe

Take A Look At Me Now

Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy

Christmas At The Beach Cafe

Raising Steam


Two things to note – Their Christmassy and/or pastel covers suggest that all but one of the books (Pratchett) are of exclusively female interest and are all written by women. Second, I’ve not only not read a single one of them, but have never heard of eight of the ten authors. Let’s compare that to stateside:

The Goldfinch

Burial Rites

The Son

Takedown Twenty: A Stephanie Plum Novel

A Game Of Thrones Complete Boxset

The Longest Ride

Command Authority: A Jack Ryan Novel

Soy Sauce For Beginners

And The Mountains Echoed


What’s immediately obvious is that there’s a much broader diversity, and a pronounced male/female reading-writing split. Also, several of the books, including Donna Tart’s number one, would be deemed ‘literary’ here – and for a country that’s religious there are no Christmas books. The UK is now virtually non-religious, and their Christmas titles use the sentimental tropes of the season rather than any messages of Christianity.

The US, which has over four times the population of the UK, has a far greater diversity of popular reading, more ethnic writing, a wider range of fiction, and astonishingly diverse non-fiction lists. There is also – and this is largely the norm now – no overlap at all in the books making the two Top Tens.

What does this tell us? That UK males have stopped reading? That we no longer buy literary novels? That can’t be true, given the massive success of Hilary Mantel’s books – shortly to become a brand thanks to theatre and TV adaptations.

The other problem is gauging bestsellers with any accuracy at all, because an e-book skew is created by Amazon’s pricing structure, so that a really bad book can sell many copies because it is cheaply price-pegged. Perhaps the days of the single novel everyone is reading are over.

Me, I’m reading Ned Beauman’s ‘The Teleportation Accident’ – easily my best book of the year. Then, maybe I’ll write next year’s bestseller: Tangled Angels In The Snow.

12 comments on “The Great UK / US Book Divide”

  1. Wayne says:

    Who is this Hilary Mantel then? what does she she write about?

    Like you say the kindle reveloution has skewed the market offering rubbish for free makes the best sellers lists non trust worthy, if they ever were…..

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I’ve done the same off and on also noticed the sort of division that you have. Unfortunately, some books are bought to read and others are bought to say you’ve bought and carry or display – still happens.

  3. glasgow1975 says:

    The Teleportation Accident is a fantastic book, I knew from the first page it was exactly my kind of thing.

  4. Alison says:

    The UK list you have shown us makes me very, very sad. And just a little ashamed of being a female. Although I hasten to add, I couldn’t cope with any of those titles or (I suspect) the subject matter. Other than Pratchett.

  5. John says:

    I spend far too much time in US bookstores and get sick hearing the same titles being asked for over and over. All the shopper needs to do is walk to the damn rack in the front of the store and see his or her choice prominently displayed among the top selling 25 titles. I’m more interested in the readers who choose the books they want to read rather than those who buy books based on what think they “should be reading” so they don’t feel left out of the latest pop culture trend.

    A new book by Ned Beauman? Must get it. Loved his first novel BOXER BEETLE! What a unique voice. No surprise that it’s only available in *one* of the Barnes & Noble stores among the possible five I can visit near my workplace. But if I were looking for Donna Tartt’s book I could find piles of the book in every single store in the chain. You wonder why bestsellers are bestsellers? There’s the real reason.

  6. agatha hamilton says:

    UK list incredibly depressing. Hadn’t heard of any of them – except Bridget Jones.
    But think you could extend your next best seller title to ”Tangled Angels in the Snow under the Mistletoe at the Beach Cafe.” Combines winter and summer, doesn’t it and would appeal to both skiers and surfers. Are the Lesbian Horses British (surely not) or American?

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Then there are specific areas. Here in British Columbia the top non-fiction list has always had at either 1st or 2nd place The Curve of Time which describes the summer boat trips of a woman, her children and their dog in the 1920’s. It’s a lovely read, you meet the people in the isolated coves north of Victoria, there are minor adventures with bears and other things, and you discover how difficult it is to feed and care for a family in a very small boat. Fine, but why year after year? Are there that many boaters? It has been so popular that there is a book now called “Following the Curve of Time”. (I have both, of course, and two copies of the original, since I have my mother’s copy. No boating in her life.)
    We buy a lot of non-fiction books in our area.

  8. Vivienne says:

    Well, of course, there are books you buy for yourself and books you buy as gifts, which is going to influence lists at this time of year. And then, surely, there must be major differences in what constitutes a book shop here and in the US. It is not that long since Sainsburys and other supermarkets started to sell books – and the situation across the Atlantic surely can’t be totally mirrored.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Our local grocery chain has a (small) book department which always has a couple of people choosing.

  10. andrea yang says:

    Gosh. I buy books for a 7 building library system and if you think US tastes are more literary and wide ranging, then I weep for mankind. I am always depressed to see the really great books languish on the shelf while everyone is on the hold list for the latest drivel. I hope all the readers I am not seeing are buying books or reading e-books. Perhaps they are because good books are still getting published!

  11. Dennis Walker says:

    Is the UK top ten possibly influenced by the selection available at your local Asda/Tesco/Sainbury’s?

  12. Dennis Walker says:

    (Obviously they stock their shelves based on what they think people will spontaneously buy if it’s cheap.)

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