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The battle for Christmas

11 September 2006

As those of us in the northern hemisphere settle down to the prospect of autumn, the kids go back to school and the new academic year looms, it's a good time to look at what's in store in the book world.

In the UK a year of drama dominated by the battle for Ottakar's has been succeeded by what looks like a remarkably rapid and sensible integration of the chain by Waterstone's, which hopefully will manage to blend the best of both booksellers. Waterstone's is about to launch its new website, recognising the importance of online sales for all sections of the book trade. If only, the new CEO Gerry Johnstone must feel, the company had not given up on its previous initiative, Waterstone's Online, in 2001 in the face of overwhelming Amazon competition, and thus lost years of growth. Booksellers may not be able to dominate online bookselling as Amazon does, but they still need to offer web sales to their customers to avoid the risk of losing them entirely to their online competitors.

In the US the book chains have been reporting weak results, which are likely to be exacerbated by the downturn in the housing market, and the slowdown in consumer spending which will probably ensue. Publishers in both the US and the UK are increasingly in competition for the big books which look like bankers.

So now there's Christmas to look forward to, the key selling period for bookstores all over the western world. It's hard to over-estimate the importance of this, especially since books are increasingly seen as attractive and discerning gifts. Into the fevered Christmas season we now have Richard and Judy announcing a new seasonal version of their Book Club in the UK. Books with their stickers are sure to dominate the Christmas lists, which this year are full of goodies anyway, with a veritable feast of new books set to entice gift-shoppers. As the Bookseller says:

'It is publishers who have the most to fear this Christmas. With so many high six-figure and seven-figure sums already gambled, expectations are perilously over-inflated. A handful of books will race ahead, earning out their advance before the carols are sung; many others will sit untouched until the Boxing Day sales. There'll be sore heads in January, and sales directors will require more than just an aspirin.'