Too many books? What ‘Super Thursday’ tells us about publishing –

In his new book Power of Reading,
the sociologist Frank
talks about “the Gutenberg Parenthesis”. This is
the idea that the age of the book was, in fact, a 500-year blip; that,
thanks to the internet, we’re moving from a written culture back
towards an oral one.

It’s the academic version of an argument you often hear. No one buys
books. No one reads books – in print, anyway. No one makes books – at
least, not the good kind, the kind they used to make before publishing
became commercial and commoditised.

But is any of that actually true? I came across the Gutenberg idea
because I decided to engage in an experiment: to take the temperature
of the book market by looking at every single book published on a
particular day. And not just any day, but this coming Thursday,
October 8. This is “Super Thursday”, the busiest and most
important date in the publishing calendar, when the big firms and big
names launch their assault on the Christmas market, accompanied by a
three-day promotional blitz under the banner “Books Are My Bag”.

That means the hardbacks published on Thursday – 383 of them,
according to data compiled by Nielsen BookScan – represent the
publishing industry’s best guess at what we actually want to find
under our Christmas trees. In short, they tell us what kind of readers
we are.

And if you look at the data, what do you find? For starters, you
find the book market in rather better shape than most people expected.
The number of books is up – The Bookseller’s Tom Tivnan estimates that
there are 20 per cent more top-tier titles than last year. And so are
publishers’ profits: after years of fretting about the impact of the
internet, sales of print books have risen this year for the first time
since 2007. Partly, says Tivnan, this is because of the
resurgence of Waterstones
, but it’s also because publishers have
become savvier about what works online, and what reads best in print.

The market is also becoming more sustainable. Traditionally, Super
Thursday has been built around celebrity memoirs – huge names paid
huge sums. This year, there are still stars (of various luminosity)
queuing up to give you their side of the story: Steve
, Tom Jones, Sue
, Chris Evans, Brian
, José Mourinho, Nick
, Amy
. They’ve still got the handwritten titles, the arty cover
portraits: Coogan gazes modestly off-page, Evans peeks out from behind
a polo neck, Blessed has his mouth open, mid-bellow. They still, in
many cases, write in a tone of relentlessly perky self-deprecation,
desperate to win the reader’s affection with quip after quip.

But things have shifted. A-list celebrities, says Tivnan,
“bring in revenue, but they’re a gamble – if you pay high six
figures or even low seven figures, you have to sell a lot of books to
earn that back”. Over the past couple of years, there were as
many misses as hits, including such seemingly safe bets as Stephen Fry
and John Cleese.

The celebrity market now is smaller and safer: lower advances, less
risk. That means the stars are having to share the spotlight – and not
just with the usual cookbooks from Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson and
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Robert
has the final volume of his Cicero trilogy, Dictator.
Andrew Marr offers We
, a history of the country through its poetry. Most
exciting of all, Bill Bryson has retraced his journey across Britain –
20 years after Notes from a Small Island – in The
Road to Little Dribbling

Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson

Sam Bryson

In fact, many of the biggest titles on Thursday aren’t for adults at
all. Jacqueline Wilson’s latest children’s book, Little
, has been given a cover so glossy it practically glows.
There’s Michael Morpurgo (An
Eagle in the Snow
), Eoin Colfer (Imaginary
), Liz Pichon (Top
of the Class (Nearly)
) and up-andcomers such as Rainbow Rowell
). Even Pharrell Williams is getting in on the act, extending
his brand from killer tunes to children’s literature with the picture
book Happy!

What about the charge that publishing has become too commercial? Sue
Perkins, in her memoir Spectacles,
describes pitching her dream novel at a meeting with publishing types.
There is a pause. Then she is told that they’re more interested in
what generates “mass sales… what really works piled up at Tesco
and Asda”. What’s hot right now, they add, is death. And pets.
Sarcastically, Perkins suggests combining the two in a book called
“Angel Dog” (“The Lovely Bones meets Lassie”), and
is surprised to find herself the only one laughing.

It’s true that the creators of Where’s Wookiee? (like Where’s Wally?
but with added Chewbacca) or Pocket Kanye Wisdom or Hip Hamster
Projects are not exactly aiming for the Booker. Particularly lazy
variations find internet memes and pin them to the table: hence Animal
Selfies, Badly Timed Boners and Cats in Awkward Places.

Then there are the inevitable TV tie-ins: quiz books themed around
or The
Big Bang Theory
, or slightly posher productions based on
Pointless and Gogglebox,
featuring exclusive material from their stars. (See what the
Goggleboxers would have made of the Kennedy assassination! Find out
what kind of tea Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman drink between
takes!) The big cookery books are the big cookery books, with as many
pictures of their celebrity authors as of the actual ingredients. Olly
Murs’s tour diary
is, well, Olly Murs’s tour diary: if you ever
wanted to know what pseudonym the X Factor runner-up checks into
hotels under, look no further.

Even books that many will love have clearly been built to fit a
niche. It isn’t hard to imagine the ideal reader for Sir Terry Wogan’s
collection of short stories
, or the umpteenth biography of the
Mitford Sisters, this time from Laura
; or Ben Fogle’s history
of the Labrador
(in which the adorable puppy-eyed creature gazes
out at you from the back page, alongside his dog).

Jonathan Bate's Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life is published on Super Thursday
Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life is published on Super Thursday


But just because there is a market for a book doesn’t stop it being
a passion project. Although Dan Cruickshank’s A
History of Architecture in 100 Buildings
is clearly patterned on
Neil McGregor’s History
of the World in 100 Objects
, it is fascinating in its own right
and gratifyingly eclectic. Similarly, The
New Yorker Book of the 50s
follows a formula, but it’s an
excellent one: archive profiles of Hemingway or Brando, mixed with
early stories by John Updike and Philip Roth, plus modern essays from
stars such as Jonathan Franzen and Malcolm Gladwell. Two of my
favourite titles were tied in to National Poetry Day, which also falls
next Thursday: a new and impeccably researched biography of Ted
Hughes by Jonathan Bate
, and Andrew Marr’s aforementioned We
, which argues that poetry, rather than science or empire,
has been our most significant contribution to the world.

In fact, the picture that emerges from the full list is not one of
commercial conformity, but bewildering variety. Of the adult titles
published on Super Thursday, roughly 50 are academic, from critical
portraits of Kierkegaard to a study of Adolf Hitler’s domestic
interiors. Another 50 are educational or vocational. That leaves just
over 200 “general” books for adults, of which fewer than a
10th are memoirs of any kind.

Yes, there are 11 books categorised as “humour”, and 10
books about football (Liverpool are top of the table, which isn’t a
sentence you often hear, but Tivnan explains that they and Manchester
United are the only guaranteed sellers). But taking a random set of
titles yields a smorgasbord of topics: “Dogs as pets”,
“Human geography”, “Dictionaries; crosswords”,
“Poetry anthologies (various poets)”, “Historical maps
and atlases”, “Formula One and Grand Prix”.

There is something else that leaps out from the list. These are not,
in fact, books for the nation – they are books for its dads and
grandads. There’s no chick-lit, for example, and the handful of novels
tend to surge with testosterone: Martina Cole on crime, Harris on
Rome, Bernard Cornwell on the Vikings, Melvyn Bragg rewriting the
Peasants’ Revolt as a saga of blood, sex and pox.

In non-fiction, there are books about war, about history, about cars
and yachts and maps and railways and the SAS and every other
middle-aged male obsession. Alexander Armstrong writes about surviving
the Arctic
; Ranulph Fiennes about surviving
the desert
. Phil Collen of Def Leppard offers tales of rock ‘n’
roll excess; Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of the Who add some of
their own. Even the big titles not published on Super Thursday itself
seem pitched to the male market: Tom Holland on the Caesars, Charles
Moore on Margaret Thatcher, Alex Ferguson and Steven Gerrard on themselves.

Does this mean the Gutenberg Parenthesis types have a point? Is the
Christmas market just mums buying for dads, with the younger
generation deserting books entirely? Well, no. It’s not just that the
children’s market is thriving, with some 80 titles out in a single
day. It’s that the biggest seller of all, judging by the pre-order
charts, isn’t Bill Bryson, or even Nigella. It’s The
Amazing Book Is Not on Fire
, and it’s by two flatmates, Dan
Howell and Phil Lester, who boast jet-black hairstyles and millions
upon millions of followers on YouTube. And they’re joined in the
charts by a host of others: Zoe
, aka Zoella; her brother Joe; Tyler Oakley; and KSI, whose
book is titled simply: I Am a Bellend. It turns out, the publishing
market is still dominated by celebrities after all. It’s just that the
rest of us don’t recognise them, because they’re celebrities only to
teenagers – who are perfectly willing to buy books under the right circumstances.

There’s a parallel here with television. For years, people fretted
that online competition and shorter attention spans would see TV
become a cultural wasteland. Instead, the big worry now is that we
have reached “Peak TV”, with just too much good stuff
competing for our attention. The same is true of publishing.

Yes, in the era of “Peak Book”, some worthy titles that
hope to make a splash will struggle to muster a ripple. I very much
hope, in particular, that there is enough space in the Waterstones
windows for the great historian Robert
on the final unwinding of the Cold War, or for The
Song Machine
by John Seabrook, which explains in fascinating
detail how pop stars from Katy Perry to Taylor Swift are utterly
dependent on the beats and hooks provided by a handful of largely
Swedish hitmakers.

Still, having too much great stuff to read seems like a nice problem
to have. As Andre Breedt of Nielsen says, there are more good books
out there this year, about all kinds of topics, and more people
willing to buy them. Of course, there are some bad ones, too (Furedi’s
of Reading
, ironically, was a real slog). But if the internet is
killing the printed word, it’s going a funny way about it.

Robert Colvile’s The Great Acceleration: How the World Is Getting
Faster, Faster (Bloomsbury) is published next year