Alex Preston in The Guardian:
This is a story about a book that just kept selling, catching publishers, booksellers and even its author off guard. In seeking to understand the reasons for the book’s unusually protracted shelf life, we uncover important messages about our moment in history, about the still-vital place of reading in our culture, and about the changing face of publishing. The book is Sapiens, by the Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari, published in the UK in September 2014. It’s a recondite work of evolutionary history charting the development of humankind through a scholarly examination of our ability to cooperate as a species. Sapiens sold well on publication, particularly when it came out in paperback in the summer of 2015. What’s remarkable about it, though, is that it’s still selling in vast numbers. In its first two and a half years of life, Sapiens sold just over 200,000 copies in the UK. Since 2017, when Harari published Homo Deus, his follow-up, Sapiens has sold a further half million copies, establishing itself firmly at the top of the bestseller lists (and convincingly outselling its sequel). Sapiens has become a publishing phenomenon and its wild success is symptomatic of a broader trend in our book-buying habits: a surge in the popularity of intelligent, challenging nonfiction, often books that are several years old.
…These are febrile, unpredictable times, with society facing new challenges and quandaries each day, from the rise of populist politics to the migrant crisis to climate change. Mark Richards, publisher at John Murray Press, sees the return to serious works of nonfiction as a response to the spirit of the age. “We’re living in a world that suddenly seems less certain than it did even two years ago, and the natural reaction is for people to try and find out as much about it as possible,” he says. “People have a hunger both for information and facts, and for nuanced exploration of issues, of a sort that books are in a prime position to provide.”