Are Book Adaptations the Future of the Publishing Industry?
By Charlotte Felton
The Publishers Association claims that “books are the heartbeat of the creative industries.” Indeed, the 21st century has seen book adaptations take the world by storm. The association’s 2018 report revealed that in comparison to original scripts and screenplays, book adaptations gain a 58% higher TV viewership and 53% more revenue in global film box offices. Certainly, the pandemic saw their popularity soar, as many book lovers found a comforting familiarity in seeing characters come to life.
But is it a matter of opinion as to whether our favourite stories translate well onto the screen?
From the many adaptations that have graced our screens, it is evident that some have amassed an immeasurable cult following. Fans use social media as an outlet for their passion (or indeed frustration) about these visual reworkings. Julia Quinn’s prolific Bridgerton: The Duke and I and Sally Rooney’s Normal People were already popular novels, yet their television adaptations ensured further success, with their literary sales figures boosted after the release.
Regency romance The Duke and I sent hearts fluttering when viewers streamed Netflix’s dazzling adaptation. The novel achieved relative success upon its original release in 2000, but the television production launched the novel to new heights. Netflix’s adaptation ensured that the reach for the book’s target audience was globally expanded, as returning fans of Quinn’s work passionately shared their obsession with new admirers. With the aid of social media, the spike in book sales following its adaptation was so rapid that the publisher ran out of printed copies (though admittedly, this was in part due to the implications of COVID-19) and fans were unable to acquire it.
A TV tie-in book cover was available to purchase following this difficulty, further evidencing the desire to link the adaptation to the novel for additional trade. According to data from Nielsen BookScan, this paperback edition has sold 42,306 copies to date (Dec 2020–Mar 2022) with 28,124 of these being in the first six months following the television release. Quinn’s other Bridgerton books were also given a Netflix makeover, with each novel receiving a new cover that alluded to the television adaptation. The publisher directed readers towards the eBook and audiobook versions during the production of these newer editions so as to continue the momentum, then pushed the sales of box sets to further increase interest and revenue.
The second UK lockdown saw the emergence of arguably one of the BBC’s most successful shows of the decade – Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The author’s stunningly authentic novel was released in paperback in August 2018 to critical acclaim. Her unadorned yet evocative writing style conveys the difficulties of love, and she worked closely with the show’s producers to ensure that this was also the case for the adaptation. Rooney’s elegant way with words has enabled countless young adults to relate to her writing and encouraged screenplay writers to adapt it before the book had even hit bookshop shelves. Moreover, the creators of the show note that its success was due to the very close translation of chapter to screen, with little being changed along the way.
To hold such power behind one’s words is not easily accomplished, yet Rooney has touched thousands of readers. It could be argued that the novel was already a success without the adaptation, as it had won Best Novel at the 2018 Costa Book Awards and Book of the Year at the 2019 British Book Awards.
The adaptation only accelerated Normal People’s success, however, with The Bookseller describing the show as a “lockdown phenomenon.” The novel skyrocketed onto the top spot of the UK top 50 paperback charts twice following the show's broadcast and was so lucrative that the screenplay was adapted into a sellable copy for booksellers. Nielsen BookScan data shows that in the month after the adaptation’s release, the paperback copy sold 107,230 copies (May–Jun 2019). In the month prior to this (Apr–May 2019), the same copy had sold well, but at a significantly lower number (53,011). It is worth noting, of course, that Nielsen had some trouble calculating accurate sales during the pandemic, yet the rapid growth here is palpable.
Could it be that visual adaptations are the key to an optimistic future in publishing? They certainly appeared to boost the publishing trade during the pandemic. The entertainment industries can thrive when supporting one another’s work, sharing vital stories that may improve our society or that provide a sense of escapism.
The age-old debate of whether a book should be read before or after an adaptation is brought forth. As book lovers, we devour each chapter with a clear picture of every character in our mind’s eye. Adaptations can be an issue for bibliophiles, especially with devoted followers of a particular book that want to see the written characters done justice. We must remember, however, that in watching these visual reworkings, many non-readers may discover the enjoyment of a book and continue to delight in such stories, just as many have done with Quinn’s and Rooney’s novels.