According to results from our Books & Consumers survey, familiarity with an author or series led to one in five book purchases in the UK in 2020, rising to one in three fiction purchases. But the last few years have seen breakout fiction hits from authors either new to the fiction market or at least new to the top of the charts who wouldn’t have that level of mainstream name recognition. So, what drives the discovery of these authors, and is it always the same segments of the book buying population that help to propel them to bestseller status? Here we’ll dig into the consumer data for five authors (Gail Honeyman, Heather Morris, Sally Rooney, Bernardine Evaristo and Delia Owens) to see what ties them together. (Of course, there are very big influences for a couple of these authors, namely a Booker win for Evaristo and a television adaptation for Rooney, but we can still see what else has played a part.)

Women under 35 – who typically buy around 20% of fiction books – have been instrumental for these bestsellers, accounting for around 40% of purchases for Rooney, Morris, Evaristo and Honeyman and around 30% for Owens (who also found a larger than average audience among women 65+).

Buyers of these authors were more likely than overall fiction buyers to say they like to be the first to read new books and often recommend books, along with a lower likelihood of sticking with authors they know they’ll like, which creates an ideal situation for debuts and word of mouth success. And while normally around a quarter of fiction books are bought by heavy fiction buyers (those who buy 16+ fiction books per year), the ‘heavy’ share for these authors ranges from 8% to 14%. These factors point to a wider base of readers that may not buy as many books in a year, but when they do pick up a new and exciting title, they like to tell people about it.

And when it comes to discovery, that reader discussion is key. Compared to overall fiction, the share of these authors’ books discovered via word of mouth more than doubles, peaking at nearly 30% of purchases of Where the Crawdads Sing, second only to the 31% found because of the bestseller list.

As all these authors have spent prolonged time at or near the top of the UK charts, that has certainly perpetuated their success, but we do see a wider variety of factors impacting discovery, while fiction on the whole is mainly driven by familiarity with the author/series and browsing.

On top of the importance of personal recommendations, both online and media reviews/recommendations have played a larger role, particularly online for Honeyman and Owens and media for Rooney and Evaristo (possibly linked to coverage of the TV adaptation and Booker win, respectively). All five authors have also benefitted from reading groups/book clubs, again tying back to that discussion aspect, just in a more organised manner than casual recommendations. And finally, apart from Owens (as Where the Crawdads Sing was popular during the pandemic when in-store options were limited), these authors have a higher share of their purchases discovered via offline browsing/seeing in the shop window, and a higher share bought through bookshops than fiction overall. Prominent placement and bookseller support can certainly make a difference for a new author, becoming the catalyst behind that word of mouth power.

There’s of course no magic formula, and it can be unpredictable what will really take off, but if we use these authors as a lesson, the data points to their books being bought by consumers who are looking for the next big thing to talk about and recommend. It’s just a question of getting that conversation started in the first place, whether via booksellers, media coverage or reader reviews.

Data extracted from the Books & Consumers monthly survey, based on purchases from January 2017 to February 2021. For more information, please contact infobookresearch@nielseniq.com.