Christmas comes but once a year, but for the book trade it can never come soon enough. After three consecutive strong winters, this year looks equally robust - led by blockbusters such as Bad Dad, La Belle Sauvage and Origin, backed up by hefty stocking-fillers 5 Ingredients, Blue Planet 2 and The Lost Words, and levened by quirky hits Bletchley Park Brainteasers and Where’s the Unicorn? Tom Fletcher and Yuval Noah Harari are also doing their bits with two titles apiece rocking the charts and, with E L James’ Darker released this week, this truly will be a range Christmas.
The good mood is supported by the statistics, mostly. The great big run-up to Christmas began in late September, when the value of the Nielsen BookScan-measured market edged above £30m in sales - and it has not fallen below that figure since.
Remarkably, despite the influence ...the Cursed Child had on last year’s numbers, 2017 remains ahead of 2016 (just) by 0.4%, driven not by an increase in the number of books sold, but by the prices paid. The loss of volume is not entirely a result of the drop-off in sales of the Adult Ladybird books and Famous Five spin-offs - without them unit sales are still down 2%.
Making more from less may not be such a bad strategy— - ust ask W H Smith. But the decline should worry us for another reason. As Waterstones managing director James Daunt says, this year has lacked something for non-core book buyers. Although some grumble at their success, trends - such as colouring in - are good for books because they break out in a way most individual titles do not. The book trade has long struggled to market its books beyond its heartlands - and even in the age of the internet, it remains true that many still find books inaccessible. In a Radio 4 programme, “Where are all the Working-Class Writers?”, the author Kit de Waal said that publishing, like the rest of the arts, needs to find new markets. There are writers and readers in the underclass ready to see their lives depicted in literature, she said, there are stories already written that deserve to be read, and new stories that will remain lost or untold until something changes. In the same show, Penguin Random House UK chief executive Tom Weldon said there was an “urgent commercial imperative” for making the industry more diverse in order to appeal to new readers.
The magic of Christmas is that it gives the book trade a glimpse into another, almost Pullman-esque, world: a place where non-book buyers buy books. The great man himself said this week that visiting a bookshop was one of life’s “greatest pleasures”. It will do us well to ensure it is a delight not just reserved for Christmas.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.