Tim Walker is expecting queues outside his family’s bookshops in Oakham and Stamford on Thursday. Other booksellers up and down the country will be hoping for a similar rush of eager readers as 315 of the most eagerly awaited hardback titles of the year hit the shelves.
The day has been dubbed “super Thursday” and titles by Andrew Motion, John Cleese and Heston Blumenthal will go on sale in the race for the Christmas bestseller lists. Bookshops hope to cash in as they try to fight back against cut-throat internet competition.
Walker, who is also president of the Booksellers Association which represents both independent and chain bookshops, admits to feeling almost heartbroken when he catches sight of people scanning the barcodes of books in his shops with their mobile phones, intending to buy them more cheaply online. He hopes “super Thursday” will give independent bookshops a big boost. “The huge number of new, and highly-anticipated, new titles creates an awful lot of news and gets people into bookshops, which are the best places to discover other books.”
Despite the continued rise of Amazon and other internet retailers, Walker said the mood among members of the Booksellers Association was the best for years. “We just had our annual conference and it was the most upbeat I can remember,” he said. “Times are tough but there’s a confidence that what booksellers do is valuable and important.” The decline in book sales – down £98m or 6.5% last year – is slowing, he said, and sales this year are expected to be roughly the same as in 2013.
Thursday will also see offerings from Sheila Hancock and Jacqueline Wilson, and autobiographies from Kevin Pietersen and Roy Keane, plus a new cookbook from Great British Bake Off’s Paul Hollywood.
“Super Thursday” is a new phenomenon. Publishers hope they will be able to replicate the success of other named retail days including “black Friday” – the day after Thanksgiving in the US, when sales traditionally kick off, which has been imported to the UK in recent years – and “mega Monday”, the biggest day for online sales before Christmas. Publishers have long preferred to launch new titles on Thursdays and October is the favoured month to release big books.
Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller, was the first to notice the Thursdays-in-October trend in 2008. But he said publishers had been too busy fighting each other to launch a collective campaign until now. The last unofficial super Thursday generated sales of £34.7m and this year they are hoping for more. “It’s been a struggle to convince publishers,” Jones said. “They have been geared towards their specific books, it’s been hard to get them to life their eyes from their individual titles. But this year they are backing it in a way they haven’t before, probably because booksellers are backing it in a big way.”
Sam Husain, chief executive of Foyles, said sales had been “massively” increased on previous unofficial super Thursdays and he is expecting a much bigger spike this year. “It helps us fight back against the internet, creates a real buzz and awareness about books, and it feeds into our busiest time – Christmas.”
David Shelley, group publisher of Little, Brown, which publishes Sarah Waters, Val McDermid and JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, said: “This is the perfect window to catch people’s imagination. It’s when retailers start planning for Christmas and people start buying presents.” Walker said his shops “do a week’s trade a day in the weeks before Christmas”.
According to Mintel, the market research group, books are the most popular Christmas present under £20 and for independent bookshops, which have shrunk in number by a third to 987 since 2005, Christmas-present books – predominantly biographies and cookery books – are vital. Including chain stores there are just 2,300 bookshops left in the UK.
This year literary celebrities are helping too. Super Thursday has linked up with Books are my Bag, a literary campaign fronted by Tracey Emin and supported by Michael Palin, Rachel Joyce, Howard Jacobson and Ranulph Fiennes.
Emin has designed a limited edition Books are my Bag tote and 25,000 of them will be given away with purchases at 1,800 bookshops on Thursday. The artist said: “I travel a lot and the thought of getting on a plane or a train without a book would just drive me insane.”
So, Anyway … by John Cleese The story of “how a tall, shy youth from Weston-super-Mare went on to become a self-confessed legend”, according to its publisher. This autobiography of the mighty Python charts his life from Cleese’s first public appearance at St Peter’s Preparatory School through his first encounter with Graham Chapman to international fame. It’s going to be huge.
The Hairy Dieters: Good Eating Tipped by the Bookseller’s non-fiction expert Caroline Sanderson as one of the season’s hottest cookbooks, Dave Myers and Si King return with their third diet book, promising to “fill you up and slim you down”.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson One of independent bookshop Foyles’ top tips for the autumn, Robinson’s fourth novel is a prequel to her Pulitzer prizewinning Gilead. The story of how a homeless girl becomes the wife of minister John Ames, Lila has just been longlisted for the National Book Award in the US.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce Joyce’s debut The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry sold more than two million copies. This is the breakaway bestseller’s parallel story, of Queenie, who learns, as she’s dying, that Harold is walking the length of the country to get to her.
Mrs Bradshaw’s Handbook by Terry Pratchett Subtitled “to travelling upon the Ankh-Morpork & Sto Plains Hygienic Railway”, this is Pratchett’s guide to the railways of his 40th Discworld novel, Raising Steam. Independent bookseller Peter Donaldson, of Colchester’s Red Lion Books, is tipping this spoof of the Bradshaw railway guides to “lead the way for humour here”.