David Walliams, BookTok and ’embarrassing’ novels: The death of the supermarket book shelf

Published in The i on November 6, 2023

Once upon a time, in the land of book publishing, a set of retailers ruled with great power: the supermarket was king, shaping British novel-buying tastes and making authors’ careers. By 2009, one-in-five books was being sold in supermarkets – often at a hefty discount that was tempting to consumers.

But those who became accustomed to throwing the latest Lee Child or Jodi Picoult into their shopping trolley along with their weekly fruit and veg may have noticed a change in recent years. Or rather, a shrinking: the space supermarkets are allotting books has noticeably contracted, with many smaller supermarkets no longer stocking any at all. This shift is reflected in sales: the latest figures from books sales tracker Nielsen BookData found that, in 2022, purchases at supermarkets were down to 14 per cent of all adult fiction.

For consumers, that means a narrower selection of titles on the shelves to consider in-between picking up a bottle of milk and a bottle of wine. For publishers and authors, it means the competition to win a space on their shelves has become brutally tough.

None of the major supermarkets were willing to put anyone forward to speak to me for this piece. But talking to insiders from across the industry, from agents to editors to marketers, they were united in agreement: the change is noticeable.

“It is clear that a lot of the supermarkets have reduced the space for books post-pandemic,” confirms Tom Tivnan, managing editor of trade publication The Bookseller. There are numerous reasons for this change but, he explains, “broadly, it is because every product in a big superstore at the moment has a far greater profit margin [than books].”

But this isn’t just a pandemic-driven thing – the decline has been going on for a while. “We are some ways off the pomp of supermarket power in books, which was in the mid-2000s to early 2010s,” Tivnan suggests.

And what power they had then! One former editor at a commercial imprint, who prefers not to be named, recalls how during the 2010s, the majority of books on their list were acquired because they were believed to have supermarket potential – that was their absolute focus. But it was a difficult model. With commercial imprints across the industry competing for the same slots, plenty of books they published ultimately didn’t get chosen by supermarket buyers.

It was worth the effort, however, as those that did get selected would reliably and vastly out-sell those that didn’t. Their team would go on staff outings to out-of-town megastores to study the book aisle and book covers for clues as to what supermarket buyers were going for.

And cover design was always discussed with an eye on if, say, Tesco would like it; if they didn’t, adjustments to the design would often be made in direct response to buyers’ feedback. Designing and marketing a novel with supermarkets in mind certainly still goes on today, but they have less of a stranglehold, with publishers less wholly reliant on their support; being bought into by Waterstones, WHSmith, or online retailers can be just as important.

The declining shelf space for books inevitably also has an impact on what kind of books get stocked. Lifestyle and cookery books, children’s books and celebrity memoirs are still well-represented, but in fiction, anecdotal reports suggest that the range of titles on offer has been significantly squeezed. True, supermarkets have always primarily sold genre and commercial fiction – but there is a sense that supermarket buyers are taking even fewer punts on lesser-known authors or unproven books today.

And this has inevitably had a knock-on effect on just how influential, or not, supermarkets are on reading habits. Most people I speak to seem to agree that they still wield power – but that their ability to shape the British public’s fiction-buying tastes may be in decline.

“It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing,” says a source who heads up a marketing team at a major publisher, about whether supermarkets shape readers’ tastes – or whether existing tastes determine what supermarkets stock. Her perspective is that supermarkets “just play it a bit safe with their choices – it’s all about the brands, and what they know they can sell. It’s just what’s going to get consumer recognition.”

Sales in supermarkets are usually an impulse buy rather than a planned purchase, she suggests. So immediate and reliable brand-recognition – whether that’s a bestselling author’s name, or heavily coded cover design – helps encourage quick decisions in an environment when there’s little time for browsing or blurb-reading.

“I guess I always imagine a harassed mum who’s just doing her weekly shop and chucks a couple of books in if she’s going on holiday,” the marketing director adds. That kind of impulse shopper needs to feel secure in “either immediately knowing the brand author, or that ‘this is a beach read’, or ‘this is a crime thriller, it’s going to grip me’.”

When choosing what books to stock, supermarket buyers will be influenced by previous sales records, of course – Richard Osman won’t need to worry about losing his berth in Morrisons any time soon – but they’re also trying to second-guess what titles shoppers of the future will recognise. And working that out is something of a dark art.

Increasingly, it means keeping an eye on digital trends and what’s doing well on social media. Several people I questioned made a point of mentioning how responsive supermarkets have been to BookTok in just the last few years.

“Supermarkets have jumped on the BookTok bandwagon and that means a lot of SFF [science-fiction and fantasy] and younger romance are part of the supermarket’s range, genres which were rarely stocked previously,” points out Tivnan.

The impact that a book gaining traction on TikTok can have on sales is significant – last year, one in four book buyers used TikTok and/or BookTok, and these consumers accounted for nearly 90 million book purchases in 2022. Obviously supermarkets want to get in on that. But this is a clear case of the supermarkets following trends, rather than leading them – it is young TikTok tastemakers who wield the influence.

And BookTok is a rare phenomenon, in that it isn’t just changing which books are becoming bestsellers, it’s also changing the whole demographic of who is buying them in the first place. “Young people are becoming heavy book buyers, basically based on TikTok – it’s absolutely amazing,” says the marketing director. “Where we’ve traditionally targeted older readers, that trend is very much changing.”

Still, some books will have to be squeezed out in order to make way for your TikTok-made-me-buy-it hits – space that was once occupied by women’s fiction, and bought by an older segment of the market, is now being filled by titles aimed at these younger readers.

That said, supermarkets are also a last bastion for some very unfashionable kinds of fiction aimed squarely at older readers: Tivnan points out that popular sagas do much of their trade via supermarkets. “A huge part of bestsellers like Dilly Court and Kitty Neale are done through the likes of Tesco and Asda. Sagas are [considered] deeply unfashionable within the publishing industry (except by those who publish them) and a lot of ‘proper’ booksellers almost seem embarrassed to stock them. I think this is absolutely shameful as it speaks to an inherent middle-class bias and ageism in the book industry.”

Elaine Everest, who writes historical sagas, confirms how important supermarkets are for her career – but says she thinks space is shrinking for these too, recently, with greater prominence afforded to crime novels and thrillers.

“I’m a ‘supermarket first’ author and the most stressful time leading up to publication is in the two weeks before when I’m waiting to hear if I’m in all four – it makes a big difference to sales,” she says. But it’s not just a question of which shops stock her, but also when: “Leading up to Christmas, many supermarkets cut down on our books and replace them with children’s books and cheap ‘celeb’ books.”

Ah yes, children’s books: an area where the debate about a narrow range of titles hogging all the limelight is even more virulent. There’s frequent hand-wringing in the industry over how few children’s books are afforded shelf space – with the dominance of certain celebrity authors, most notably David Walliams, proving a source of frustration. While it’s unlikely that supermarkets can be held entirely responsible for this stronghold, they have certainly helped amplify the existing trends.

“’Big brand’ children’s authors like David Walliams or Jeff ‘Wimpy Kid’ Kinney … might not have been ‘made’ by supermarkets but they should certainly be grateful Tesco exists,” concludes Tivnan. And the ease of being able to grab a book while doing the big shop, rather than having to go somewhere specially, has made the dominance of certain titles or authors a self-perpetuating trend.

“As teachers we just want kids to read and any book is better than none,” says Lynsey Paddock, a former English teacher who watched the dominance of Walliams and co ramp up during her career. “But there’s also the fact that many parents feel out of their depth buying books for kids and are overwhelmed by book stores … they feel a bit clueless about what to buy, so bright displays in supermarkets feed into that and make the parent feel they are supporting the child’s education, and in an easy and convenient way that requires minimal thinking for the parent – ‘here’s a great book that’s popular and cheap’.”

With such a fight for shelf-space, it’s understandable that supermarkets pile up the popular and the familiar – but celebrity-written kids’ books, ghost-written celebrity memoirs, and historical or romance sagas are bankable bets, rather than particularly influential choices. When it comes to fiction, it would seem fair to say that these days, supermarkets stock what sells, but that it is high street and indie booksellers that set the agenda and shift the nation’s taste in books.

“Waterstones and independents are more powerful now – I think the balance has tipped,” says the marketing director. “Which is great – it’s great to have a really robust highstreet in books.”

In her opinion, the pandemic helped remind consumers of how pleasurable a leisurely browse in a proper bookshop can be – we missed it, and when shops were able to re-open, we had more appreciation for the rewarding experience they offered, in contrast to just grabbing a book in amongst your harried weekly shop.

But while supermarkets’ influence is waning, the sheer scale and reach of being pushed in Sainsbury’s shouldn’t be underestimated. They might not pluck unknowns from obscurity – but if they do get onboard, they can boost the next-big-thing into, well, the big thing.

“Supermarkets are still absolutely central to an author’s commercial success,” insists Jonny Geller, CEO of the major literary agency Curtis Brown. “And although they appear to be cutting orders in certain genres and formats, we depend on their good relationships with our publishers.”

Geller seems pretty positive about the fact that supermarkets will still throw their weight behind anything that is cutting through with consumers. “Where a supermarket works brilliantly with an author and publisher is when they see their customer in the same way Netflix/Apple sees theirs – as someone able to enthusiastically embrace blockbusters as well as arthouse. ‘Commercial’ can mean many different things.”

This year’s big breakout fictional hit illustrates this perfectly: it’s a work you might’ve first seen in highly-curated books stores, but can now pick up in Tesco alongside a loaf of bread. “Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow hit number one this summer initially because it was the Waterstones book of the month,” says Tivnan. “It stayed there because supermarkets bought into it.”

Where next?