Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Record box office and book sales at SWF 2015; nonfiction titles dominate

The Sydney Writers’ Festival’s 2015 theme ‘How to Live’ has been a resounding success for both the box office and book sales.

This year’s festival, which ran from 18-24 May, attracted approximately 96,000 attendees, including 62,790 ticketed sales. This compares to 89,000 attendees reported last year.

‘Attendances are well and truly up on last year,’ said executive director Jo Dyer. ‘We’re already estimating a figure of over 96,000 attendees, a remarkable number we can confirm with more accuracy once we’ve received figures from our suburban venues and Live & Local regional partners.’ 

Artistic director Jemma Birrell said was ‘delighted’ with the response to the ‘How to Live’ program. ‘It shows there’s a real urge for deeper conversations and insights into the ideas behind our books and writers,’ she said.

Birrell said some of the highlights were: ‘Helen Garner and Richard Flanagan getting standing ovations; audiences transfixed by Mohsin Hamid’s address on “Life in the Time of Permawar”, Helen Macdonald’s luminous closing on nature’s role in teaching us how to live; Robert Dessaix on all things Enid Blyton in the Curiosity Lecture Series; Alan Cumming getting the whole Opera House to sing It’s Saturday Night on Broadway; Omar Musa with his stunning prose poem and Richard Tognetti playing the exquisite del Gesù violin; Ali Cobby Eckerman moving people to tears in “Give Me Back My Mother’s Heart”; Anthony Horowitz giving a world first reading of his new James Bond novel; and Ben Okri charming the entire theatre with his tales of magic and myth’.

Other highlights included Andy Griffiths, ‘who was so very generous signing books for seven hours for hundreds of adoring fans’, and David Walliams, who had children ‘stampeding to get to the mics’ to ask questions, said Birrell.

Bookshop bestsellers

While Andy Griffiths was the bestselling author at Gleebooks’ festival bookshop for his numerous ‘Treehouse’ books (Pan), the top-selling title was Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing (Scribe), which sold over 400 copies.

Gleebooks co-owner David Gaunt told Books+Publishing that book sales ‘were easily the best we’ve had’, with the theme ‘How to Live’ a trend among the bestselling titles. Twelve of the top 15 titles were nonfiction, and eight of the top 15 were from international authors. Gaunt also noted that ‘heaps of books’ sold more than 100 copies, whereas in previous years only eight or 10 books sold in these numbers.

The top 15 titles at the festival bookshop (including sales figures for the top 10) were:

  • The Brain’s Way of Healing (Norman Doidge, Scribe), 432
  • H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald, Vintage), 341
  • Not My Father’s Son (Alan Cumming, Canongate), 340
  • The Age of Magic (Ben Okri, Head of Zeus), 226
  • One Life: My Mother’s Story (Kate Grenville, Text), 204
  • Quarterly Essay 58: Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State (David Kilcullen, Black Inc.), 201
  • Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End (Atul Gawande, Profile), 184
  • In the Light of What We Know (Zia Haider Rahman, Picador), 187
  • The 52-storey Treehouse (Andy Griffiths & Terry Denton, Pan), 174
  • The Bush (Don Watson, Hamish Hamilton), 169
  • Quarterly Essay 57: Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly (Karen Hitchcock, Black Inc.)
  • Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life (Paul Dolan, Penguin)
  • Farewell Kabul (Christina Lamb, HarperCollins)
  • The Wife Drought (Annabel Crabb, Ebury)
  • The Art of Belonging (Hugh MacKay, Macmillan).


This year’s festival included the new Live & Local program, with more than 18 festival events live-streamed into arts centres and libraries in Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Byron Bay, Coffs Harbour, Parramatta, Port Macquarie, Taree, Tamworth and Wollongong. The program was funded by the Australia Council.


Category: Local news