Printing News
Books, sales and the avuncular tendency

The same question arises every year: what on earth to buy my uncle for Christmas? Crisis was averted in 2011 by the admirable Mark Forsyth, whose book The Etymologicon (Icon) is a jaunty stroll through idiomatic English, guaranteed to tickle the avuncular tendency.

The Etymologicon was the sale of the season, so popular that bookshops could not supply public demand. All hands were at the printing presses as emergency runs were produced; the books were then apparently hand-delivered by Icon’s staff to bookshops desperate to profit from the public's fever. Exact figures are not yet available, but it seems that more than 50,000 copies have been sold.

Icon’s Philip Cotterell told the Bookseller that The Etymologicon is ‘a triumph of traditional publishing’. Other green shoots have sprung in the arid high street, with several independent publishers reporting a ‘surprise’ increase in revenue through the festive period. This good news is being ascribed to the decent weather throughout December and an extended trading period; although one bookseller has remarked to me this afternoon that their initial projections were ‘probably on the pessimistic side’, which dulls the bright outlook of ‘better than expected results’.

All will become clearer when the Bookseller releases its survey of Christmas holiday sales tomorrow, but the general indications are pretty gloomy for the high street retailer. Mutterings from booksellers on the wires suggest that digital fiction is expected to have outstripped its print counterpart, especially in hardback, while the paper has already revealed that print sales were 16 per cent lower than last year; the paper has also hinted that e-Books outsold printed books last week, which would be another mark on the ascent of digital publishing. 

Digital platforms grow by the second, but dead Lord Reith remains immensely important to the book trade as a whole. The Etymologicon owes much of its commercial success to being Radio 4’s book of the week during the days preceding Christmas. Publishers freely admit that Andrew Marr, Melvyn Bragg et al are the masters of their universe; get a book on their programmes and you’re waving not drowning. Most books, of course, sink soon after launch.

Richard & Judy’s TV Book Club on More4, the latest shortlist of which has been announced today, is another of these publishers’ dreamboats, more valuable even than those on Auntie: last year’s spring titles racked in £4.6 million between them. Those numbers are remarkable; so then, how to interest Richard & Judy? I wonder if they still have uncles to please.

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