Santa’s unspeakable sack

Why are publishers so sniffy about stocking fillers?

Books Columns

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

To anyone beyond the spangled palisades of the UK book trade, “Super Thursday” must sound like a key date in the US Presidential Primary season. In fact, it is the day on which the publishing industry traditionally unloads what are intended to be its big sellers on an expectant marketplace. 

Comedians’ memoirs; celebrity chef fodder; Tin Pan Alley biographies — all those big, fat hardbacks by writers (or ghost-writers) that ordinary people have heard of, whose destiny is to fill Christmas stockings and be purchased (at a discount, naturally) by the considerable percentage of the population who might just buy two or three books a year.

Super Thursday, in other words, is the day on which the book trade reaches out to members of the non-book-buying public, those countless millions of citizens who, mysteriously, don’t read the Observer books pages or sit chewing their nails in anticipation of this week’s Times Literary Supplement.

Here in 2021, the date falls on 14 October, and although the general air of razzmatazz seems slightly diminished in a post-Covid world — just under 300 books are being issued in place of the 400 or 500 of recent times — there is a whole heap of stuff waiting out there for the dump-bins and to wreak havoc on the Waterstones display tables for the next two months.

Highlights include Michael McIntyre’s A Funny Life, a thriller entitled State of Terror in whose composition Hillary Clinton has been assisted by Louise Perry and Windswept and Interesting by the ever-reliable Billy Connolly.

For most of the industry’s movers and shakers, 14 October will still be the most important day of the year

As to why numbers are down, a recent Private Eye article suggested that Penguin’s decision to bring out Richard Osman’s million-selling debut The Thursday Murder Club at the start of last September was a game-changer, on the grounds that with a fair wind behind them publishers can expect to dominate the charts from the end of the school holidays all the way to Christmas. All the same, for most of the industry’s movers and shakers, 14 October will still be the most important day of the year.

And what, you may wonder, does the average publisher make of this marketing fest? The answer, curiously enough, is not very much. You see, no self-respecting editorial director at a big London firm wants to publish Michael McIntyre’s memoirs, or the autobiography of someone from Girls Aloud or a terrible book of recipes from somebody who luxuriated beneath Gregg Wallace’s rheumy gaze on Celebrity MasterChef. 

By and large such items are published with an eye to a healthy balance sheet, and to expect the people who commission them to be actively interested in their contents would be fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of publishing and the people who work in it.

In publishing, as in everything else, you can take elitism too far

Many years ago, when he was an undergraduate, the Secret Author used to attend publishing industry graduate recruitment seminars. They were always hilarious. The speakers were invariably sales and marketing staff bent on preaching sober lessons about bottom lines and the necessity for new recruits to go out on the road selling books, while those attending were invariably starry-eyed English students who fondly imagined “publishing” to consist of taking the winner of the Booker Prize out to lunch.

Mutatis mutandis, this divide — between the bean-counter and the creative type bent on ratcheting up the cultural thermostat — can be glimpsed in almost every firm that sets itself the unenviable task of publishing “serious” literature.

For all the fine (and entirely necessary) talk about diversity and expanding the industry’s demographic, publishing is still mostly populated by young, well-meaning, metropolitan, liberal-minded Oxbridge graduates, most of whom are simply embarrassed by a fair proportion of the books that appear in their catalogues. 

This tendency can be glimpsed further down the commercial line. Back in 2011 the Secret Author was standing by the counter of an independent bookshop when a lanky teenager put his head round the door and demanded “Have you got the Shades thing?” At which point the bookseller — literally — rested his head on the till in despair, uttered the single word “No” and then remarked to me in an undertone that this was the sixth such enquiry of the morning.

I could see his point, while thinking that if I had been in his shoes I should have had a dump-bin of Fifty Shades of Grey in the offing next to the Booker longlist and all those no doubt enticing translations from the Bulgarian. The way to keep publishing small amounts of the good stuff is by simultaneously publishing large amounts of the bad stuff and using the latter to subsidise the former.

And so the people who complain about editorial space being devoted to a footballer’s memoirs at the expense of all those promising first novelists are missing a trick. We need more autobiographies like A Funny Life and less snootiness about what the Victorians used to call biblia abiblia (“books that are not books”). In publishing, as in everything else, you can take elitism too far.

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