Christmas markets

For the last four weeks, Nielsen BookScan figures have lagged behind the equivalent weeks of 2017, leaving this year’s total to date just 0.25% ahead on volume—a discouraging sign as we start to approach the run-up to Christmas. Yet for all that, the mood music is reasonably good.

Retailers are pleased with what publishers have given them to sell and optimistic about the festive season. The Man Booker winner is disproving the naysayers and showing there are plenty of punters happy to engage with a "challenging" read at a paperback price. W H Smith may be planning high street closures, but Waterstones is opening new bookshops pre-Christmas, and the esteem in which excellent indies are held by their communities is proved by the crowdfunding success of Mr B’s expansion plan.

While some industries may face a miserable "Brexmas", publishing, opines analyst Douglas McCabe, looks likely to avoid it. Amid political and economic uncertainty, spend may be directed more towards low-priced items—good for books. And as many booksellers are saying, during dark times in public life, people look to reading for solace: whether that’s enlightenment through brainy non–fiction or escapism via immersive reads.

The pattern of title sales at Christmas has changed, though. Children’s has come to the fore over the last two years, and it’s a brave bookseller who would bet against David Walliams’ Ice Monster not being a monster hit in November and December. But children’s aside, there has been no recent blow-the-doors-off Christmas bestseller, like the £12.5m Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals took in the last two months of 2010, or the £6m Sir Alex Ferguson’s My Autobiography took in the same period in 2013.

Publishers, burned by the dangerous risks of the celeb-memoir heyday, now favour a spread-betting approach rather than winner takes all. That makes for a saner Christmas all round—a range of smaller books means there is something for each retailer to focus on, and less imperative to slash prices on a single bestseller.

For BookScan’s Q5 in 2017 (essentially the month of December) the discount percentage off r.r.p. stood at 25.7%, the lowest discounting rate in 12 years; by contrast, discounting rates were around 33% in the month of December between 2009 and 2013. The average selling price was £8.81 in December 2017, the highest Q5 a.s.p. since records began—though rising r.r.p.s are a factor.

The downside is that stand-out hits which take the nation by storm really build momentum for Christmas gifting as a whole. They puts books in the media spotlight and bring customers into the shops—where, of course, they find other, equally attractive books to buy. The challenge in the coming few weeks is to ensure the Christmas gifting message is at the forefront of customers’ minds, both through retail marketing and the best possible new title publicity.