Souped up Super Thursday is no reason to panic

Super Thursday is normally a pretty fun day. About the midway point of run-in to Christmas period, it is the day of a year with the greatest number of hardbacks published, a phenomenon first identified in 2008 by The Bookseller's former charts editor Philip Stone (now of Nielsen Book), with help from ex-Hachette comms boss Clare Harington. In the ensuing 12 years, The Bookseller has pushed and promulgated Super Thursday and with the help of many⁠—particularly the Booksellers Association—it has become a thing, an essentially free pan-industry promotion picked up by the wider media and the book buyers alike, where the trade can say: "Look at all these books being published today. Isn't this great?"

Great, that is, until this year. At least in some quarters, as the pandemic-pushed Super Thursday 2020⁠ and the rest of a consequently packed autumn schedule⁠ in some, quite frankly, near-hysterical coverage in the general media⁠ has been spun as a dire part of Covid-19, like having to have Matt Hancock as Health Secretary. The general line of these pieces is that the huge glut of titles moved into the autumn due to the dearth of releases over lockdown is an utter disaster, that the trade is shooting itself in the foot by over-publishing in the Christmas period of 2020 and the end result will be many books being lost in the shuffle. This has casued panic from some booksellers, publishers and authors, particularly on social media; for example, there is a Twitter "support group", #3rdSeptembers, for worried authors whose titles are coming out 3rd September when, there will be an "onslaught" on 600 books released. 

The bulk of the reporting is not necessarily incorrect but is misleading and greatly skews what is happening on the ground. But first, I'll hold my hand up. The Bookseller is not exactly blameless in all this, as we have charted the Covid-affected movement of titles for five months, first noted the packed autumn "bun fight" in May and have followed up with several stories on the issue around this, for example, how it will affect indie publishers. But we have done so, I think, with an eye on the context, the nuances and—crucially—what the numbers really mean.

As an aside, I perhaps should note what happens every year is that your humble correspondent "calls" Super Thursday (which I have done since Phlip Stone left the magazine seven years ago) based on Nielsen BookData by determining which day has the most hardbacks coming out. BookData, for those that don't know, is Nielsen's listing of books and related products (anything that has an ISBN) based on publishers' metadata and is a separate database from BookScan, which charts physical book sales.  

So let's dive into some of those numbers, starting on that 3rd of September that is causing so much vexation. Yes, there are 600, or rather 579, hardback titles out on 3rd Sept, a 24% rise on the number of HBs published on the 1st Thursday of September 2019. However, of those HBs published on 3rd September, about 40-45% are general trade titles: the ones that will be jockeying for High Street shop space. The majority are academic/educational/professional titles that will probably only ever be accessed at a university library or on an STM giant's digital platform, and will certainly never grace a front of shop table at Waterstones. So, a very liberal estimate would be about 260 of those hardbacks are frontlist trade titles (I estimate as a number have academic/trade crossover). Suddenly that onslaught, tsunami or unstoppable juggernaut (you can choose your own metaphor) of books out on 3rd September seems a lot more manageable. 

It is a similar situation on Super Thursday (1st October) with its 790 HBs. This Super Thursday is greatly inflated partly because of Covid, but mostly as it happens to fall on the first of the month, often the default date for academic publishers' releases. Perusing those Super Thursday HBs, a very liberal estimate would maybe 315 are non-academic/professional titles. Last Super Thursday had 426 HBs, but that was down on 2018's 544 (the number of titles declined for a host of reasons, mostly as there were a number of mini-Super Thursdays in 2019). But strip out the non-trade titles and there is around a 22% jump in trade titles from Super Thursday 2018 to 2020. Again, that is a lot, but more manageable. 

But here's the thing. As fun as it is to talk about these heavy book release dates, we need to look across the whole autumn. And guess what? Book production is actually going down this autumn. There are currently 10,502 HBs slated to be published this September to December, a drop from 13,119 (-20%) in the same period in 2019. This is all areas of publishing and a lot of the decline is due to education/academic sector reigning in on what is undoubtedly going to be a very tricky back to school/uni season. But trade publishers are not exactly hugely ramping up their autumn schedules, either. Again, it is difficult to definitively say what exactly consitiutes a trade book, but looking line by line of those HBs out this year and last, it looks like trade publishing hardback production is up 10-15%. 

As an example, let's whiz through some of the Hachette divisions. According to BookData, Little, Brown is publishing 92 HBs from September to December, nine more than 2019 (+11%), Orion has added four more to hit 79 (+7%), Hodder 15 to 109 (+16%) and Headline two to 37 (+6%). Only Quercus has a massive rise—it will release 20 more hardbacks this autumn to get to 41 (+95%), but a good portion of this is down to series publishing as it is rolling out its Little Ways to Live a Big Life gift range. And two divisions have actually reduced titles with Octopus dropping 30% from 86 in 2019 to 61 (its own shift in its series publishing has much to do with this), while John Murray Press will publish 15 hardbacks, half of its autumn 2019 output. 

This is not to minimise the difficulty that is to come this autumn. Even a low double-digit percentage rise in frontlist trade titles, when bricks and mortar bookshops are swimming in stock, will mean bricks and mortar booksellers will have to make hard decisions about promotions and stock levels. And at a time when publicity, review space and marketing opportunites are extremely difficult to come by, competion will be fierce for publishers to get their books noticed. Yet, as hard as it will be, this autumn—provided there is no second lockdown—is not going to be as unmanageable as you have been led to believe.