Above is a photograph of part of The Sunday Times books cupboard. The titles on the floor are what has come in during the last week (early August), in anticipation of the key book sales period of September and October. To be honest, it’s a torrent.
By my reckoning, the typical literary editor will get something like 250 books a week, all of them vying for space on our books pages. Given that we have, on average, seven slots for non-fiction titles a week and four or five for fiction, it’s not a encouraging equation for authors in search of reviews.
It’s not an even pattern, though. That figure for books published will rise exponentially for the September and October period, when people are back from their summer holidays and the march to Christmas has begun (a huge percentage of publisher income is accounted for by those Christmas sales).
And it will dip significantly for certain other months. Very few titles are published in August, when most people are on holidays (I once commissioned a review of a reprint of a book about flood management in Somerset for August, such was the shortage of titles that year). Even fewer are published in December, when publishers think it’s just too late for Christmas sales. January and February are relatively quiet times, too, April and May much busier.
As a literary editor, I sometimes (figuratively) tear my hair out in August and December trying to find books for the pages. I’ll also tear my hair out in April/May and September/October, thinking of the excellent books that I simply don’t have space for because of the amount of competition they face. Looking at the lists, I’ll wonder, too, why some titles, particularly non-fiction ones, haven’t been held back for the summer, or the last few weeks before Christmas, when there’s more chance for newcomers to shine.
1. Don’t panic
Before you march into your publisher or agent’s office demanding that they maximise the chances of your first book being reviewed by publishing you in January, or August, or even, heaven forbid, December, there are complications to this picture of flood and drought.
For one, if you find that your publisher has scheduled your debut for April or September publication, that could certainly signify carelessness – or it could mean confidence, and your editor’s belief that your book will float to the top amidst the flood of rival publications.
2. Have faith
Likewise, if you find your first novel is scheduled for publication in January, and you worry that it means that your publisher has no confidence in it – don’t. It’s not necessarily a graveyard slot; publishers often launch new novelists in the early months of the year, and it may well be that you stand a better chance of getting noticed then. By contract, debut novels published in September or October often flounder when pitched against the bigger literary fish published then.
3. Hold strong
And if you find yourself being published in December, and think it means that your publisher has lost all faith in you and has dispatched you to the graveyard slot – against, desist. I know of one canny publisher who always holds back one significant title for the beginning of December – and as a result almost always gets blanket review coverage for that book.
I only wish that more publishers did the same.
Andrew Holgate is the Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, and a judge of the 2018 Young Writer of the Year Award.
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