Monday, April 22News For London

Celebrity, food, fiction and fact – booksellers bank on a Christmas bonanza

Christmas crackers: some best-selling fiction at Foyle’s bookshop
(Picture: Muhammad Hamza Khan)

London’s booksellers are hoping for a bumper month of sales in the run-up to Christmas – their most crucial four weeks of the year.

Independent bookshops and the smaller chains – facing increasing online competition from Amazon and other retailers – rely on December sales for almost half their annual income.  This year, as window displays have been completed to tempt passing customers, booksellers will be watching the weather inside and outside their shops, gauging which titles are turning over the tills.

“It changes the game for us,” said Olivia, one of the staff at Lutyens & Rubinstein, an independent bookshop near Portobello Road in west London’s Notting Hill, which modestly describes its wares as among “life’s essential’s.” “Once we’ve set out our stall for Christmas, those books will immediately start to sell,” Olivia added. Pressed on her favourites for the season, she nominates new novels by Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell.

Holiday reading? A customer at Foyle’s, Charing Cross Road
(Picture:  Muhammad Hamza Khan)

Nearby, tourists pose for selfies outside another bookshop with a blue plaque above the door. In years gone by, a travel bookshop traded here; the inspiration for the film, Notting Hill.  The film has helped the area’s economy: Britain’s booksellers hope each Christmas for a similar boost.    

In their Marylebone High Street flagship shop, manager Brett Wolstencroft, of the Daunt Books chain – with its own renowned real-life travel section – acknowledges the importance of the Christmas trade.

“It’s a crucial time,” he said. “Various figures are banded about it the trade, but a small high street bookshop can make a third or more of its annual takings in the four weeks before Christmas.  Most small bookshops will have been trading at a loss until they get to November.”

Book sellers reckon many Britons only buy books at Christmas – usually as presents – but the period is crucial for encouraging them into the shops, where they may develop reading habits of their own. Similarly, students may bemoan their financial state, but for booksellers they are important customers whose reading – and book buying – habits may last a lifetime.

In recent years, publishers have increasingly focussed on the Christmas period, launching a slew of titles aimed at customers who may only buy books at this time of year, whether as presents or for themselves. The trends for celebrity – even micro-celebrity – biographies, cookbooks, TV-tie-ins and the like have led to fears that more recondite reading may be forced off the shelves, as booksellers try to cope with rising rents, fuel bills and other costs.  But Wolstencroft remains confident that other literature will survive.

“Once Christmas sales were all about the latest Delia Smith [cookery book], and celebrity titles are always welcome, but this year we have 40 non-fiction works on our season’s list,” he said.

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic, when people were isolated, I think we have seen that people have realised the physical pleasures of the printed book, and browsing the shelves,” he adds. “And in a recession, I think there is evidence that for readers, books are a resilient item in their budgets.”

Andrew Holgate, who recently retired after a distinguished career as books editor of the Sunday Times, points out that, though celebrity author sales may skew sales figures at Christmas, they are important for the wider publishing eco-system.

“Christmas is absolutely huge for booksellers,” he said. “And although some people may decry trends for celebrity autobiographies, cookery books and the like, it’s important to remember that the revenues they bring to booksellers at this time help shops survive during the rest of the year. And that in turn supports the many other authors and titles that they can stock.”

Festive fare: hardback books arrayed to tempt the shopper
(Picture: Muhammad Hamza Khan)