And so that was Christmas…
So there you have it, another retail Christmas over and the analysts are falling over themselves to supply and overegg statistics to decide if it was a good or bad one.
Car park queues may be a useful indicator, although we are now attuned to the idea that convenience means not having to walk further than through the emporium entrance. However, according to some long suffering shop assistants the number of people about at present – in commercial-speak ‘footfall’ – does not directly equate to the volume of business. Add to that, the oft-ignored rider by the smiley chaps and chapesses who speak for individual outlets or centres that reductions, as opposed to sales, are the antithesis to profit.
Like all businesses, the festive season is particularly important to us even though, both in terms of publishing and bookselling, we are at the plankton end of the retail food chain. And what this year’s pre-Christmas period reconfirmed in these harsher than usual economic climes was that we actually know very little.
Christmas has always been about guesswork or, more accurately, second guesswork; forecasting demand. In niche markets, that can be down to the success or otherwise of even a single product which, at small independent level particularly, could be one individual title. Stock it in the right quantity, maintain the retail price (and thereby the integrity of both the title and the author’s royalty) and there is the chance of all parties benefitting.
For those increasingly rare beasts, bookshops, that saving grace is unlikely to be a ‘bestseller’. Such is the state of the trade that the focus on discounting those titles and carrying a potential loss leader at this critical time is possible commercial suicide. Exhibit ‘A’ your honour: Borders UK, who folded almost a year ago and they were big fish. The television chef Jamie Oliver’s book sold fantastically well, setting new records for non-fiction, but the truth is that one of the major reasons for that was an uneconomic price. The accompanying sadness for booksellers who love diversity and range was that many indies, despite wanting to stock the book themselves, actively chose not to for that very reason. It is hard to think of another ‘industry’ where rising demand equals falling price. Such are the dilemmas and where the hope of a big, local title will in part fill the void.
The other rub is that, irrespective of this year’s weather-induced logistical nightmares – and when service is your kingpin not knowing when deliveries are coming with a finite waiting period is hair-greying – Christmas shopping is getting later.
Not so long ago there was a definable pattern. October saw an upturn as the main festive titles were published and the well organised began their present buying. November was a slight lull while the December pay packet was awaited and then sales built steadily, reaching a peak in the three or four days up to the Christmas Eve door shut and climb into a dark corner for nerve-shredded and knackered proprietors. It was always hard to reconcile a year’s work effectively coming down to four weeks of till ringing but at least the beast was tameable.
Nowadays it is much harder to plan effectively, to have the right books on hand in the right quantity at the right time. Expectations have changed because of the 24/7 culture we all live by. No matter that books were in windows three months before, were originally published over 20 years ago and would be only-to-order or, increasingly, print on demand or that simply they are not on a shelf at a given moment; as consumers we rock up and expect them to just be there.
If there is time or inclination to order, they have to be available by return which is often, given the very nature of distribution and the use of wholesalers, not always attainable. So the bookseller and to a certain extent publisher becomes the victim of a double whammy: brilliant if they have got or do get the requested title, rubbish if they haven’t or can’t. But the same amount of effort and desire goes into both.
That said, Scratching Shed rushed through three reprints in December; a second reprint for Dare to Dream plus additional copies of Reluctant Hero and, especially, Iby Knill’s Woman without a Number after a fantastic piece in the Mail on Sunday‘s You magazine. In early January, Ray French and Rugby will be reprinted also.
So a huge thank you to those who stocked or ordered our books. To the ones who bought them, we hope they were just what you wanted and, for the recipients, that you enjoy the read.