Christmas comes early for bookworms

By Rhys Handley, Monday 15 October 2018

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Christmas is coming – regardless of any protests that autumn has barely begun. The retail sector is revving up for the festive season already. For print, this means production will step up on all sorts of physical media.

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Promotional flyers, billboards, catalogues and more will be zipping off the presses as brands up and down the nation prepare for impact.

Arguably, few corners of the print industry are put through their paces quite so much as books. For book printers, the onset of Christmas is marked by a single day in October that their clients whip up a frenzy to meet – Super Thursday.

The first Thursday of the month (4 October this year), this mysterious phenomenon sees the release of more titles into shops than any other day of the year. For 2018, a record-breaking 544 hardbacks hit the shelves – up 40 titles on 2017.

Super Thursday prep begins for book printers as the summer wanes. Sector stalwart Clays adds capacity especially for the demand and produces most of its books through August and September. At this time, flexible working contracts are made use of to bring workers in for the busy period. The shockwaves are felt after the big day, too, as booksellers demand re-stocks across the season.

“Production in the factory almost doubles at this time of the year,” says sales director Vicky Ellis. “We see the average run length drop quite significantly but with increased orders on quicker turnarounds to react to the likes of Amazon.

“Publishers print little speculatively now, and it is also our job to supply the market with what it needs when it needs it in the period following Super Thursday, when availability on retail shelves needs to mirror sales. Clays is as much a supply chain and logistics business now as it is a printing business.

“Super Thursday is very important to our business. The value we provide to our customers is in managing risk for them and that is best demonstrated in two ways: Super Thursday itself and then the period of peak book sales that follows it.”

The term ‘Super Thursday’ was first coined by The Bookseller magazine in 2008 after it noticed an elevated rate of releases on a single Thursday in October. Eventually, the nickname stuck and mainstream media coverage coalesced around it annually.

Editor Philip Jones says: “Super Thursday exists mostly because there are a lot of big books to get out before Christmas, and not many Thursdays. It is in no way planned by anyone. 

“As a promotion it draws a lot of attention from the media, but publishers have wised up – they move their publication dates to avoid being crowded out and some smaller publishers piggy-back on the promotion, declaring their title a ‘Super Thursday book’.

“I wish publishers did more to build on the good publicity, but it is a mixed blessing: attention for their books, but also lots of attention on other titles. Personally, I see it as that moment when the trade really pulls together – from printer, to distributor, to author, to bookshop – it’s not easy to get 500 new hardbacks into bookstores on the same day.”

Super Thursday certainly comes with its benefits for the book sector – and bookshops themselves have seen as much, jumping on the trend by establishing Bookshop Day on the Saturday that immediately follows. For book bods, it’s also a prime opportunity to keep an eye on spending habits and see how consumers’ relationships with books are evolving in a digital world.

The Booksellers’ Association’s director of strategy and communications Alan Staton says: “Shoppers this year seem to be veering away from typical celebrity autobiographies – if they are going for those sorts of titles it’s for people who have really lived their lives; Eric Idle, Roger Daltrey and Michael Caine jump out this year.

“One significant trend has been towards higher production values and individualisation. People want books that are like artefacts – a reaction to the eBook trend which is now fading away. If someone buys a book, they want it to be special.

“I think Super Thursday is worth celebrating, especially now we have a concentrated campaign to go behind it. It is a fantastic marketing hook to encourage people to take more notice of books.” 

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