Word for Word: The season to be bookish

Irish writers wrap books in Waterstone’s in Dublin  for a Christmas charity. Photograph: Frank Miller

Irish writers wrap books in Waterstone’s in Dublin for a Christmas charity. Photograph: Frank Miller


Christmas is an odd time to be a book publisher. As it approaches our tension rises dramatically. It is, after all, the peak sales season for books. Estimates vary, but anywhere between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of all book purchases this year will happen in the next four weeks. To use an awful cliche, it can make or break a publisher’s year.

Starting as early as September, the big guns roll out their wares, and we smaller publishers do too. On one Thursday in September as many as 600 titles are released into the British and Irish market. It takes a lot to get noticed in that kind of a crowd. If a publisher releases a book early, it hopes for success quickly enough so that a reprint can be ordered and more books delivered to shops before Christmas. (The other option is to judge the print run just right and make it through to the new year without needing another.)

Publishers are not perfect, and often get it wrong. We go to launches, we scour bookshop shelves to make sure our titles are there and we hope against hope that people will like our Christmas offerings.

As the big day approaches we become increasingly obsessed with finding out whether customers are, by any chance, picking up our books. Booksellers become our best friends. We, on the other hand, become more of an irritant to them.

Our minds are focused elsewhere, too, looking ahead to next year. The spring books, which must go to the printing press before the holidays, the summer books, and even next year’s Christmas books should be arriving in our inboxes from authors and editors. No doubt, too, there are the books that are running behind schedule. If we have a spare moment we might also spend time thinking about the books we’ll commission for the year after next.

That’s the thing about books: they take shape over such a long time – sometimes years – in an author’s head. It can take years to get them down on paper. Then even more time is spent on editing, design and production.

So, readers, as you walk in those crowded stores this month and search for the perfect books for your loved ones, there’s an army of writers, publishers, editors, designers and booksellers working to make sure that, 12 months from now, there’ll be a new bunch of wonderful, informative, funny, sad, brilliant, beautiful, engaging, entertaining and exciting books for you to choose from next Christmas.

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