Last Christmas

Consumers may be as inscrutable as ever when it comes to their likely gift-purchases, but asking booksellers for their Christmas predictions is a relatively straightforward business. Cookbooks, TV and YouTube stars (minor and major), sportspeople and celebrities dominate the festive push—just as they have pretty much done every year for the past two decades. 

The gifting season remains incredibly important to the book business—the sales that take place from Super Thursday onwards make up roughly two-fifths of the entire market. And yet, since 2008 the value of this period has fallen by more than £100m, with the number of print books sold down by 15 million. Some of this is how the world has shifted: Jamie is less popular than he was; digital has taken a chunk of sales away; the recession has hit both volume and value; while the rise in cheap alternatives to books (from iPads, to Kindles, to the PlayStation) means books have to run faster just to keep up.

Publishers have long known that their best sales tool is the content itself—and if not that, then the author. Kevin Pietersen, Roy Keane, Lynda Bellingham and Russell Brand have been dominating the media in recent weeks. 

Well-planned serial deals, TV and radio interviews, YouTube videos, Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter campaigns have helped the content reach out as far as it can—perhaps even further than it used to.

Earlier this week, The Bookseller co-hosted an event with YouTube, looking at how the video-sharing website can generate a Holy Trinity of success—interest, revenue and actual book sales. As the author Richard Wiseman said: “[YouTube] is a form of marketing unlike any [other] form, because you would usually pay.” Or as Tumblr’s Rachel Fershleiser says in the FutureBook Supplement: “You no longer need to get a giant press hit or advertisement and reach absolutely everyone.”

Publishers have also been building their direct-to-consumer know-how, meaning well-targeted campaigns have taken the place of the brasher, generalist approach of old. Less visible perhaps, but more useful.

Even so, I can’t help but feel that publishers are missing a trick by neglecting those audiences that still get their book content from traditional media sources (a.k.a. heavy book-buyers). An unscientific look at the review pages in last week’s national newspapers revealed barely any advertising from the major publishers, despite the reams of content devoted to their titles. If we have learned anything from this digital revolution, it is that the new ways of doing things are not always perfect replacements for the old. Sometimes you just have to do both, and be good at both.