Or is it just an excuse to flog more trashy celeb autobiographies at Christmas?
Yesterday, as I stood in the new Foyles flagship store on Charing Cross road - a six-floor, glass temple dedicated to more than 800,000 books - something strange happened. Behind the hunched shoulders of young professionals poring over Alain de Botton self-help titles and girls giggling over the new Lena Dunham, a 3-metre tall tote bag with the words "Books Are My Bag" printed on it was lowered into the atrium of the building. Twenty-five thousand of these canvas bags, designed by Tracey Emin, are to be given away free this weekend as a means to luring the UK population back into bookshops and this was their auspicious godhead, a giant totem for the future of the UK's publishing industry.
Foyles were honouring Super Thursday, one of the most important days in the UK books calendar, when the highest number of hardbacks is released on a single day. The phenomenon has been around since 2008, when Philip Jones, now editor of the Bookseller, noticed the trend for a large number of books being published on a particular day in October. But this year, for the first time, Super Thursday was being backed by the publishing trade under the banner of "Books Are My Bag", a campaign devised by M & C Saatchi in response to a decline in bookshops, of which there are now just 2,300 in the UK.
The book world are hoping that this year's three-day event, beginning with Super Thursday and ending on Saturday with various author meet-and-greets, will help stave off the bookshop's demise. "I've been selling books in my family bookshop since I was 13," said Tim Walker, president of the Booksellers Association and owner of Walkers Bookshops, "and there's never been a time when publishers, booksellers and authors have joined together like this to shout from the rooftops that bookshops are essential, and that they're interwoven with the culture of our country."
New numbers from Nielsen Books & Consumer show that e-books were outsold by both hardcovers and paperbacks in the first half of 2014 (according to the survey, e-books constituted only 23 percent of sales). In 2013, British book buyers spent £2.2 billion on print, compared with just £80 million on e-books.
Meryl Halls, the Booksellers Association's head of Membership Services, told me the mood among the book industry was optimistic. "Obviously it's been harder for high street booksellers over the last few years because online retailers have lots of advantages: they're convenient and they can be cheap, but I think the tide has turned a little bit. Bookshops are holding their own. Nobody is saying that the internet is evil, or that online shopping is the devil, it's just that we want to remind people that there are fantastically beneficial things about going shopping on your high street."
The last six Super Thursday weeks have averaged sales of £34.7 million, and there is a week-on-week average sale uplift for Super Thursday of 6.1 percent. Unfortunately though, this hasn't kept the critics at bay. To many, Super Thursday is perceived more like Black Friday than Record Store Day: a marketing ploy devised by publishers to cash in on Christmas sales. As author Jon Stock wrote last year, "Super Thursday remains a chimera in the minds of the retail industry and the public, a self-defeating coincidence of book data and marketing plans. [It] is, in effect, the starting gun for Christmas, which is such a depressing thought that we dress it up as something else."
Any worthy works of fiction or non-fiction released on the day are lost in the sea of big name hitters. Three hundred and fifteen titles were released yesterday (from a total of 1,185 this week), the most prominent among them Gillian Anderson's debut novel, A Vision of Fire, Martina Cole's crime novel The Good Life, Heston Blumenthal's long-awaited £125 whooper, Historic Heston, as well as autobiographies from Ray Winstone, John Cleese, and Paul Hollywood.
When I wandered around the bookshops in North London yesterday to find out whether your average consumer knew what the hell Super Thursday was, or even cared, the results weren't great. First, I walked up to my local branch of Waterstones, which was pretty quiet apart from one woman who came in to buy a colour-changing umbrella. I asked one of the booksellers if they'd got all 315 new titles in. "Oh no," he laughed, "we've got the ones that the publishers are most keen on. Our buying system is centralised so generally, every Waterstones will have at least one copy of the absolute biggest titles, but with titles that are of a more niche appeal, then you might find that the bigger bookshops stock them. We just don't have the space." So really, you're just stocking up on shitloads of celebrity titles, I asked? "Generally you find the biggest titles you get will be the celebrity autobiography and things like that, because they've got the star power. The fiction big-hitters, people like Murakami and Ian McEwan, came out towards the tail end of August."
Over at a branch of Daunt Books, a member of staff told me they hadn't actually had any more people coming in than usual. And that the ones who do come in don't seem to know it's Super Thursday. "I think it's more of a publishing thing," the staff member said. To test their theory, I asked the customer behind us whether she'd heard of Super Thursday? "No," she replied, "I'm here because I'm meeting a friend and I was early."
At Primrose Hill Books, owners Jessica Graham and Marek Laskowski weren't too happy about me even mentioning Super Thursday. "It's not booksellers who are doing this," Laskowski said, "it's the publishers who are trying to get publicity for what they consider to be the most popular titles coming out for Christmas. They make a big thing of it, but it's meaningless. The general public don't know what it is and don't care." He showed me an email bulletin that gets sent out to bookshops called Book Brunch, what is in effect a digest of all the news from the book trade that day. Among the things mentioned were the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Samuel Johnson 2014 shortlist. "They're the things which interest booksellers," he continued, "not which publishers have chucked out a celebrity biography tied in to some arbitrary date in the calendar."
"Yes, you want a discussion about books," Graham added, "but actually you want a discussion about specific good books or about something that's won a prize, you don't just want a marketing thing about units and celebrities, because really that's not what book selling is." So to Graham and others, Super Thursday is a waste of time. As Will Self wrote in the Guardian last weekend: "We can wax all we like about the importance of the traditional gatekeepers and the perspicacity of editors and critics in separating out the literary wheat from the pulpy chaff, but the fact is that these professions depend on the physical book as a commodity." That's the sad truth of the matter.
But others believe that even though celebrity titles are the draw, they might not always be the outcome, and it's up to the independent bookshop to make sure the right titles are given their due attention. Nadine Dorries MP, for example, who's bestselling book Four Streets was out on paperback yesterday, said she thought getting people to talk about books, no matter which books, was always positive. "For those who are struggling in the publishing world or those who are first-time authors, having your book published today is a bit daunting. I think there is a danger that many good books will be drowned out by a celebrity publishing culture. If bookshops are using celebrity titles as a gimmick, then what they should be doing is looking for novels that don't have the big names to promote in store alongside the ones that do."
Similarly, Caitlin Davies, author of several novels including Family Likeness and Place of Reeds, said anything that puts books in the news and encourages people to go into independent bookshops has got to be a good thing. "It would be good to be published on Super Thursday because your book is being pushed, it's widely marketed and out there," she told me. "If you have publishers and other groups working together at the same time on the same day, they'll end up pushing books they think people will want to buy for Christmas. But if you go into an independent bookshop, they're not pushing whatever celebrity memoir or Christmas cooking book is, they know their field and they give customers a wide range of books that don't necessarily have big marketing campaigns behind them."
So, the question is, is Super Thursday the saviour of print? Ultimately, I think no amount of Tracey Emin bags and Great British Bake Off books is going to eliminate the problem bookshops are facing. When I left the house yesterday and got soaked in the rain, I became pretty annoyed that I couldn't just conduct my investigations via the internet. But each time I walked into a bookshop, I remembered why I loved them in the first place. There was a person to tell me which new books were worth reading, someone to "tsk" at when I accidentally bumped into them, and even the chance of meeting someone who has a different-coloured turtle neck for each day of the week.
In his essay The Unknown Uknown, author Mark Forsyth writes that the magic of bookshops lies in finding something you never knew you wanted. "The internet takes your desires and spits them back at you, consummated. You search, you put in the words you know, the things that were already on your mind, and it gives you back a book or a picture or a Wikipedia article. But that is all." The same principle, he says, can be applied to online dating, which allows you to name the exact specifications of the person you wish to meet.
So if you're Elizabeth Bennet, you'll never encounter Mr Darcy because you already knew what you wanted, and if you're Romeo, you'd never cross paths with Juliet because it's Rosaline you were seeking. You hardly ever go into a bookshop and come out with what you originally intended to get, that's not something that happens as much online. If Super Thursday gets that one person to go to a bookshop who wouldn't have otherwise done so, then it can only be a good thing. And if the path to enlightenment is via Roy Keane, then so be it.
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