With Super Thursday just behind us, the big autumn releases on the runway, the Booker just a few days away, and the Frankfurt Book Fair just around the corner, now is a moment to take stock. Last weekend’s Bookshop Day, which follows Super Thursday, allied with the releases of Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, Bill Bryson’s The Body and, perhaps more improbably, Andrew Ridgeley’s Wham!, shows the market functioning as we might hope at this time of the year—the big books drawing in the big spenders. Last week, Nielsen-tracked sales surpassed £35m, a feat not achieved until mid-November last year.
But within this, the concern expressed by some of the smaller indies we spoke to this week, about the number of titles released over this short period of time, is notable. Last Thursday, 400-odd new hardbacks were released, with a further slew due this week. Not all are destined for bookshop shelves, but the amount, actually down on some previous years, remains formidable. Nic Bottomley, Booksellers Association president and owner of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, says that for many outlets, big and small, it is “highly disruptive having so many books arrive”. In practical terms, he warns that distrbution systems are not well set-up to manage the twin demands of giving bookshops time to get out postal orders to customers, and place titles on shelves.
In competing against Amazon for the lucrative pre-order market, as well as making sure their shops are as up-to-date as possible, booksellers are now fighting on two fronts, meaning that, for retailers, publication day now lasts for two days—if not longer. It is little wonder even Amazon experiences the odd glitch in the system!
Super Thursday, which grew up out of happenstance, has always been a compromise. It draws in media coverage, but at the expense of individual titles, with many smaller “big” books outshadowed by the blockbusters.
Yet without it, we would not have Bookshop Day and the Books Are My Bag promotion, both of which drive footfall and play up the idea of the social good of bookshops. Sentiment has always been important for book-buyers, but connecting the content with how books look and feel, and from where they are sold, has been vital. The business, too, runs on adrenaline: the excitement of the new, though some see it as passé, is a necessary driver.
Perhaps we might peg this as a problem that is “nice to have”, an unresolvable fact of a business that lives to tell stories, thrives on sharing them, but always has more to say. A means to a pretty satisfactory end. In a recent issue of Private Eye, its books columnist chastises Waterstones for not shelving Lucy Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted Ducks, Newburport (sic) in sufficient quantities and instead “simply stocking books that sell”—as if that wasn’t exactly the thinking that got the chain into trouble at the end of the last decade.
As any fule kno, there is nothing simple about bookselling—even the big books demand our care and attention.