We can't believe it's taken us so long to wonder about Barack Obama's impact on book sales in Canada. We didn't start thinking about it until we saw his summer reading recommendations recently, though others have been wondering whether he's the new Oprah since at least 2010.
As it stands, Oprah still hasn't picked a new book club pick since November 2018. What's up? Has she stopped reading? [In fairness to Oprah, though they're not "official" book club picks, she does recommend a lot of new books and interview authors through the Oprah's Book Club newsletter that goes out the first week of every month. -Ed.] We really hope not. At least not until we can definitively crown a "new Oprah" to sell more books. Maybe Obama is the one. Let's find out.
On Aug. 14, 2019, Barack Obama shared a list of the books he'd been reading over the summer:
Let's look at how some of those books performed directly after he endorsed them.
At the top of Obama's list were the collected works of Toni Morrison, who had died only nine days before. We're not going to examine any of her books as it would be difficult to separate any sales impact due to her passing from Obama's specific endorsement.
Obama also recommended some fairly new titles, including The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (July 16, 2019) and Inland by Téa Obreht (Aug. 13, 2019). Since it would be similarly difficult to separate new-book-buzz from Obama's endorsement, we eliminated these books as well.
We also had to eliminate How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu from our analysis, as we had no sales data for this title (as reported to SalesData) for the period we were looking at.
That left us with seven titles:
Exhalation by Ted Chiang (9781101947883, May 7, 2019)
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (9780812998955, Feb. 12, 2019)
Maid by Stephanie Land (9780316454506, Jan. 22, 2019)
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami (9780385689465, May 1, 2018 and 9780385689441, May 9, 2017)
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (9780345809872, Feb. 28, 2017)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (9781443444927, March 10, 2015 and 9781554687787, Dec. 13, 2011)
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (9780393339758, June 7, 2011)
We chose to split these titles into two groups: frontlist (those published in 2019) and backlist (those published prior to 2019) to see if Obama's reading list led to any discernible spikes in print sales in the Canadian, English-language trade market for either group.
Books on Obama's reading list published in 2019
To recap: Here are the books on Obama's reading list that were published in 2019 (excluding Inland by Téa Obreht and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead since they were too new): Exhalation by Ted Chiang (9781101947883), American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (9780812998955), and Maid by Stephanie Land (9780316454506).
So what impact did Obama's recommendation have on print sales in Canada?
Print unit sales for American Spy, Exhalation, and Maid from four weeks before Obama's reading list announcement to present
All three books experienced a sales increase in the week that Obama released his recommendations. American Spy had the largest percent increase: Unit sales increased 233% from the week ending Aug. 11 to the week ending Aug. 18. In the week ending Aug. 25, unit sales for all three books were also higher than any of the four weeks leading up to the announcement. Exhalationand American Spy units increased in the week after the announcement, while sales for Maid decreased, though they were still higher than pre-endorsement levels.
Books on Obama's reading list published before 2019
Again, to recap: The books on Obama's summer reading list published before 2019 were: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami (9780385689465 and 9780385689441), Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (9780345809872), Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (9781443444927 and 9781554687787), and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (9780393339758).
How does the sales impact on these books measure up when compared with the books published in 2019?
Print unit sales for Men Without Women, Wolf Hall, The Shallows, and Lab Girl for the four weeks before Obama's reading list announcement to present
Again, we can see that unit sales for all of these backlist books increased in the week that Obama made his announcement. Unit sales for Lab Girl and Men Without Women both increased by more than 250% from the week ending Aug. 11 to the week ending Aug. 18. Wolf Hall and The Shallows both increased by more than 150%.
Although unit sales decreased in the week ending Aug. 25 for Men Without Women, Wolf Hall, and The Shallows, sales were still higher than the week ending Aug. 11: 160% in the case of The Shallows. So the sales effect that Obama had on these books is real and noticeable.
The biggest impact is, arguably, for Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. From the week ending Aug. 11 to the week ending Aug. 18, unit sales increased 275%. In the following week (the week ending Aug. 25), unit sales increased even more: 413%. Who knows why this story of trees, science, and love struck such a chord with book buyers, but it clearly did and it will be interesting to see how long the sales bump lasts.
Every book on Obama's reading list that we looked at experienced a bump in sales. It's safe to say that there's a clear Obama effect in Canada. As big as Oprah's? Maybe. His recommendations tend to be lists, so the impact is spread out over numerous titles. If he gave one book club recommendation a month, produced video content, and interviewed the author as Oprah does when she launches her picks, it's possible his effect could rival hers. I'm sure he'll just add that project to his list.
Have another celebrity you want us to evaluate for Oprah-like sales influence? Let us know in the comments.
Are you a publisher, retailer, or librarian who wants to see more data like this? Check out SalesData, the sales tracking service for the Canadian English-language trade book market. If you’re already a subscriber, and want to see when sales spiked for specific titles (like we did here) check out the Single ISBN Report. If you still have questions, or want SalesData training, contact us!