The busiest day of the publishing calendar offers hope for some, but ruin for many
There is always a day in the autumn publishing calendar that is traditionally the biggest of the year and is regarded with a mixture of anticipation and dread by the industry. This is known as “Super Thursday”, and is when publishers bring out their highest-profile titles for the Christmas market. If the books have been gauged correctly, they will end up being considerable successes, selling in enormous quantities and bringing in fortunes in royalties for both the grateful author and relieved publisher. If they have not, they will flop spectacularly, buried under the landslide of competing titles and doomed to bargain-bin obscurity within a few months. If the whole industry has been compared to a kind of upmarket gamble, then Super Thursday is its Grand National, and many of the horses running are not going to survive the race.
Because nothing in 2020 is conventional or predictable, there is not going to be one Super Thursday this year, but several. The first, on 3 September, sees a staggering 590 books published in hardback. Although a large number of these will be trade and academic titles, and therefore not books that would be stocked in your local bookshop, there are still hundreds that will be competing for coverage in the increasingly slim newspaper review sections and for space on the much-coveted front-of-store tables and bookshelves.
These include everything from the absolutely sure-fire hits, such as Richard Osman’s debut novel The Thursday Murder Club and Caitlin Moran’s More Than A Woman, to smaller but arguably more significant titles that have attracted interest and hype over the past few weeks. Having reviewed Bodleian librarian Richard Ovenden’s fascinating study of literary destruction, Burning the Books, for a forthcoming issue of The Critic, I would be astonished if it didn’t become a bestseller, and all of those who loved James Rebanks’ wonderful memoir A Shepherd’s Life will no doubt be similarly impressed by his follow-up English Pastoral: An Inheritance.
Yet for every Osman or Moran, or Ovenden and Rebanks, there will be a dozen titles that will be commercial underperformers, simply because they won’t be reviewed in the papers and not stocked prominently enough in the shops. These will include everything from past-their-moment memoirs from public figures who their publishers and agents fondly imagine occupy a more prominent place in contemporary life than they actually do, to light comic novels that could either offer a weary nation some succour amidst the apparently eternal tumult of bad news that we are faced with or simply seem an irritating and irrelevant jolt of forced frivolity at a time when nobody much cares for it. And this is before the weighty historical biographies, the endless onslaught of cookery titles, the lavishly illustrated nature books…it is enough to make one fear that we will all meet the fate of Leonard Bast in EM Forster’s Howard’s End, who dies literally buried beneath a cascade of books.
Now, more than ever, I seem to be deluged with press releases, advance proofs and review copies
I have seen something of this from both sides of the fence, both as an author and a journalist. As the literary editor of The Chap magazine, where we usually have space to review a handful of books in its quarterly issues, I have long since despaired of sending polite emails to publicists to explain that the chances of my being able to review their author’s title is next to zero, not least because the magazine’s focus tends to be on quirky and unusual works of fiction and history rather than, say, Will Young’s latest autobiography. And as a regular reviewer for The Observer, I can cover three books a month, one fiction, one non-fiction and one paperback, and there has never been a time that I have been short of titles to cover. Now, more than ever, I seem to be deluged with press releases, advance proofs and review copies, and I am merely a freelance critic. I can only imagine the sheer Bastian onslaught that literary and section editors are currently faced with.
Of course, one of the main reasons why Super Thursday, and all of the various further Thursdays stretching into November, is so rammed this year is because of the Covid-delayed publication schedule. When it became obvious in March that lockdown was imminent, meaning in turn that bookshops would close for the indefinite future, publishers were faced with a difficult choice. Should they hold their nerve and stick to the planned spring and summer 2020 publication dates, or should they postpone publication until autumn 2020, or even spring or summer 2021?
Those who chose to retain their original dates were faced with a mixed result. Many major titles that were published in April and May, especially, underperformed to a significant extent. I was told on a recent visit to a leading independent bookshop that several of the year’s most anticipated titles, by household name authors, had sold between a quarter and half of what they were expected to do. Yet books that came out from mid-June onwards, traditionally a quieter time because of the summer break, sold as well, in some cases far better, than they might have done otherwise, thanks to a comparative absence of competition.
Writers and publishers are stuck in a Darwinian battle for survival
Now, however, such strokes of fortune are likely to splutter to a close. An unspoken maxim in publishing has always been that word-of-mouth is ultimately what sells books, rather than review coverage or mass eruptions of publicity (even if they can stimulate the word-of-mouth to favourable effect). If an author is publishing their book on a level playing field, and it is good, then they can hope for a reasonable chance of eliciting this invaluable endorsement. However, it now seems that, with a few exceptions, writers and publishers are stuck in a Darwinian battle for survival, and a lot of excellent books are doomed to sink without trace, possibly ruining some extremely promising careers into the bargain.
What does this mean for the industry as a whole? There are those, especially on the hard left, who would happily tear up the whole world of publishing, regarding it as too white, too middle-class and too exclusionary to diverse and underprivileged voices. Given how the Black Lives Matter movement has become one of the defining social developments of our age, we can expect that there will be many more books such as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist. We can also expect a plethora of books about the trans experience in the next year or so, and perhaps fewer memoirs by middle-class white celebrities about, essentially, how lucky they were to become famous after an expensive private education.
But for those writers whose major qualification to a career is the ability to write well and to tell an interesting and unusual story with conviction, the field is narrowing. If one cannot rely on one’s publicist to ensure reviews in the national press, then there have to be other methods. I have been contacted directly on social media and email many times over the past few months by writers, asking that I bear their books in mind for review. More often than not, it has worked, because I admire chutzpah and tenacity and having the guts to put oneself out there. However, this should not be taken as an open invitation to authors to start sliding into my DMs, for the simple reason that I don’t have time to read all the books that get sent to me, and from now until the end of the year, I know every single title that I shall either be reviewing or pitching for review. I suspect that this is the case for virtually everyone who writes for high-profile publications at the moment.
Super Thursday is leavened with the grim certainty that there will be more failures than success
And traditional non-newspaper media is not much good, either. It is an enormous shame that there is no monthly consumer print magazine that is solely dedicated to books (Waterstone’s used to have a good one, but for whatever reason it was dispensed with), as the estimable Bookseller remains an industry-oriented, rather than reader-focused, title. TV has often been oddly recalcitrant about covering the latest books, and when programmes have reviewed them – as in Newsnight’s The Review Show – it has been only the tiniest proportion of high-profile titles that have received coverage. Radio is far better, but even here it is the Osmans and Ovendens of this world that will be discussed, but more niche books are unlikely ever to be blessed with such exposure.
So aspirant authors are now faced with new challenges, but new opportunities, too. Social media represents a chance, but also a pitfall; judge it correctly, and you can sell many copies of a book, but come across as insistent and strident, and it can actually put potential purchasers off. High-profile podcasts are an excellent means of getting one’s name out there, but again there are only so many opportunities for writers to appear on these shows. And blog tours, something of a must for authors of genre fiction, remain a mixed blessing from a commercial perspective, depending on how widely read the blog actually is.
The next few Super Thursdays, then, represent the best and worst of the publishing industry simultaneously. There will be some brilliant books published that will sell in large numbers, and some unexpected sleeper hits that manage to capture the zeitgeist and establish careers. There will be commercial disappointments from big-name writers and low-profile failures from debut authors who will probably never have the chance to release another book afterwards. It is exciting, pitiless and fascinating, leavened with the grim certainty that there will be more failures than success. So, if you’re buying one of the sure-fire bestsellers, why not pick up a book by a writer that you haven’t heard of, too? You might just find that you’ve been instrumental in saving a brilliant career, and one day they might thank you for it.
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