Between the Lines #113 min read

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It usually starts with the jokes—okay, back to work everyone, summer is over, the book-publishing calendar has arrived at fall. Depending on where you sit in the industry, September really does mean it’s time to get things in gear. If you’re a writer, the submission season at most magazines begins; for editors, the slower days you spent reading manuscripts and traveling to conferences gets replaced by frenetically making sure the Big Fall List stays on the rails through the various pub dates; for agents, the simple fact that editors are back at their desks means it’s time to get pitching. It’s also when a press’s biggest showcase books come out, which is to say that, if you’re trying to understand the state of play in modern publishing, now would be a good time to pay close attention.

That strategy of saving the biggest books for right now is one that deserves examination. Where “summer reads” carry a connotation of levity or transience, fall is when houses publish the books they think you’ll be talking about, the ones they want to build a brand on. To illustrate, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, an impactful book that had the whole world talking, was a September novel. Three years later, her quieter collection of previously published short stories was a June release.

Remember, these lists are sometimes planned years in advance; if it has a pub date in autumn, it’s been carefully selected for that well before now. Fall is when book media kicks into gear, especially toward the holidays. On the one hand, a press’s keynote books require this attention if they’re going to meet sales expectations. On the other, books can easily slip through the cracks this season if they don’t get enough buzz out of the gate. There are simply too many other shiny objects for the publishing media—and readers—to look at.

This seasonal ebb and flow can reveal a lot about how a publisher sees itself. Which books of theirs do they think they can publish well enough that they don’t mind competing for attention? Who are they trying to “break out,” and which of their books do they view as “events?” If a press is taking a turn toward the literary or highbrow, now is when that might show up in their catalog. If they’ve decided to put their full weight behind a previously unknown author or a book with a riskier premise, you’ll know because of that October pub date.

In a lot of ways, it’s a frenzy that feeds on itself. Couldn’t publishing space itself out more evenly? The holidays are naturally a strong time for sales, but so could be a lot of parts of the calendar, if the coverage and strategy changed a bit. But that’s practically the point: the industry has carved out a specific stretch in which everyone understands that this is when it counts, reinforced not just by saying so, but by the weight of the calendar.

In other words, beyond just trying to attach itself to the gift-purchasing habits that happen to take place around this time of year, publishing chooses to condense its “busy season” as a means of being able to draw a contrast with other times of year. As we’ve pointed out before, book publishing lives and dies on word of mouth; a great way to lay the foundation for that existing at all is to have buildups, high points, and stretches for which the entire industry has spent months and months preparing. It’s a way of trying to harness buzz, to catch lightning in a bottle, and by doing so, the cycle eventually reinforces itself, all the way down to media coverage and purchasing habits.

It all makes for a fairly frenetic race toward the holidays and then winter, but that overwhelming pace of the season can be read as a sign of good industry health. It’s fashionable to talk about the death or decline of traditional publishing, but the most convincing argument would be a strangely quiet fall season. When things look truly bleak, you’ll know because September won’t feel overwhelmingly busy. Luckily for us (we guess?), this September doesn’t fit that bill. This fall will not be quiet. Publishing hasn’t lost its shine just yet.

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