What's so great about September?

Nearly all the highest-profile forthcoming books are published next Thursday. Why? Jasper Rees investigates
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The Independent Culture
You probably won't have heard of Daniel Menaker. He is the author of a first novel called the The Treatment about a New York teacher's entertaining duels with his macho Cuban analyst. It may be as good a literary debut as emerges from America this year, but at least in this country its appearance will not make much of a dent in the public consciousness. The Treatment is being published on 3 September. Enough said. For all the attention his book is likely to get, Menaker is about to find out how it feels to be a minor 8th-century saint whose feast day just happens to be celebrated on 25 December.

For the book trade, and especially for fiction, 3 September is the busiest day in the publishing calendar. Except that busy isn't the word. It's D-Day: a flotilla of new novels is about to lands on the beaches and storm the shelves the bookshops. Also published this Thursday are books by Julian Barnes, Ruth Rendell, Joyce Carol Oates, Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Faulks, John Harvey, William Trevor, Morris West, Dick Francis, Joanna Traynor, Gyles Brandreth, former Guardian editor, Peter Preston, Norway's top novelist Per Petterson, as well as new/newish kids on the block such as comedian Robert Newman, Alex Garland, Andrew Miller, David Gemmill and the bus-driving debutant Magnus Mills. There's even a recently discovered story by Mary Shelley out that day.

A few days either side of this date there are new novels by Ian McEwan, Michael Dibdin, Ben Elton, Paul Bailey, Frank Delaney, Patrick O'Brian, Olivia Goldsmith, Richard E Grant, Antony Sher, Red Dwarf's Robert Lewellyn, Justin Cartwright, Libby Purves and Ben Okri. You get the picture. By any standards this is an exceptional week, a one-off in which it so happened that planets were all in alignment, the literary bio-rhythms were in synch, and a bunch of heavyweight authors all handed in their books simultaneously.

"There's every year, and there's this particular year," said Noel Murphy, who runs promotions at Waterstone's, which aims to bring books to buyers' attention. "This year is a sheer freak of nature." To the international conglomerates who shelter a multitude of imprints under one roof, a form of damage limitation is available. They can guard, up to a point, against stabbing their own in the back. Random House has segregated England, England by Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan's Amsterdam and Martin Amis's Heavy Water And Other Stories from one another like a bunch of squabbling schoolboys, while Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks was smuggled into the shops a week or two early. "We check one another's schedules," explained Sue Freestone of Hutchinson. "We don't want to compete with ourselves. It's difficult enough competing outside."

But on a day like 3 September there will be nowhere to hide. There is a logjam of fiction - Viking alone publish four new novels this Thursday - that is creating a bottleneck on literary pages and in bookshops alike. And however deftly they may overcome with the attendant logistical problems, a more fundamental concern goes unaddressed. Can the market actually support this weight of new novels?

Naturally, book publicists attempt to give it a positive spin. "Seventy per cent of hardbacks are sold in the autumn and lead up to Christmas," said Helen Ellis, the publicity director of Harper Collins. "It is more difficult to get coverage, but this has to be offset by the fact that the market is much larger and therefore there is more room for all concerned. It is a stronger time for selling books."

Ask any other branch of the industry, and you come up with a different view: that they may have gone a bit far this time. "It's difficult," said Freestone "because the budgets of booksellers are not unlimited. I know that other publishers - and I am too - are all rather nervous about the number of wonderful books coming out." For Murphy at Waterstone's, "It just means you've got an embarrassment of riches and you can't do everything you want to promote the books."

"It seems to me pretty counter productive," said John Coldstream, literary editor of the Daily Telegraph. "Why on earth not spread them out? All the books would get a lot more review space at any other time. They all lose out on in early September."

Even for novelists with nothing to fear from the opposition, let alone foreign debutantes like Menaker, the pool looks a little crowded. "It's absolutely daunting," said Sebastian Faulks when I read him the list. "I'm aware that there's a lot of activity because I've received something like six invitations to parties on the same night. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that something's going on. But what is so great about September? Why is it better than the first week in October? I can't imagine."

What is so great about September? For a start, it's not August. "August is incredibly quiet, so the trade tells us," said Nicholas Pearson of Fourth Estate. "People have bought their books for their holidays and gone away, so it's perceived by the trade as a poor time to sell books." The other thing about September is that it isn't October. The received wisdom decrees that, when scheduling fiction, the heavy hitters have a window of opportunity bookended by the summer holiday and the looming shadow of Christmas, when the cookbooks and the anthologies barge their way to the front-of-shop display tables.

But the far bookend is shunted artificially towards the near one by a several external factors. The two-month period is initially compressed by the deadline for the Booker Prize, contestants for which have to be published by the end of September. A further squeeze is imposed by the bookshops' Christmas catalogues, which are usually out by early October, and the monthly bookshop promotions, which tend to start at the beginning of the month. And the final crush on to a single day comes from the tradition of publishing on a Thursday. This year, the first Thursday in September falls on the third.

It all sounds ruthlessly scientific, but the annual lemming-like rush into print on the same day may well be driven by nothing more than commercial folklore. There is a comparable superstition in the United States that films released much before Oscar nomination time will not get noticed. The American music industry also falls over itself to rush out big albums in the week before Thanksgiving. The Booker Prize exerts as mysterious a force field as either, and contenders cluster like iron filings around the month preceding the deadline. Quite why, no one seems able to explain.

"Why it is that publishers publish just before the end of September," says Nicholas Pearson, "rather than just after it an have the book eligible for the next year, I don't quite know." And there is evidence that Booker judges are not influenced by the timing of publication. "The year I was a judge," said Faulks, "it was won by Peter Carey, who was published in April. He had a considerable advantage by the fact that everyone had read it just out of pure enthusiasm. I do remember the last fortnight suddenly getting half a dozen must-read famous writers and thinking, this is mad."

Part of the problem stems from the insolubility of an age-old riddle: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or in this version, the reader or the writer? The creed in the trade states that even if a book misses out on the Booker Prize - and all but six do - it would be foolish not to surf the annual wave of spending each autumn. However, that wave may well be created as much by the supply as the demand. In other words, if publishers made April the big month for fiction, the sales bar chart would rearrange itself appropriately.

"It could well be cause and effect," said Jon Riley, chief editor at Faber. "There is an assumption that books published in early spring tend to get slightly forgotten when the autumn comes around. I myself don't believe that can be true. But publishers and booksellers are both locked in a ghastly embrace, which means that for both parties by far the highest percentage of sales is going to be in the last three of four months of the year."

Is there any way of loosening that embrace, of plateauing out the publication of important fiction across the calendar? Bloomsbury set a responsible example this year by publishing their important fiction in the spring. But then the fact that neither Jay McInerney, Joanna Trollope, John Irving nor Will Self's short stories would be Booker contenders made it easier to avoid the rush hour. Perhaps with half an eye on Peter Carey, Faulks recalled specifically lobbying for a spring publication for Charlotte Gray. "I did say that I would prefer it to be published in April. You get more space, more attention. Charlotte Gray was delivered over a year ago. It was revised by January, so they could easily have brought it out in the spring. But I suppose there's a feeling of shit or bust: if you're going to hack you've got to be able to hack it against the best."

In the end, it's precisely this that determines the high-rise stack of fictional releases all on one small square in the publishing calendar. Readers occasionally judge a book by its cover, while just as superficially the trade judges a book by its date of publication. If O'Brian wants a novel such as Hilary Mantel's The Giant to be perceived as a heavyweight, it has to puff out its chest and run with the pack on 3 September. At least within the trade, a spring release for a marginal Booker contender may look like a vote of no confidence. It's called peer pressure.

The likes of Faulks and Barnes and Rendell need have no fear on 3 September. On that understanding, Waterstone's is certainly not promoting them. "Big books tend to make their own path," explains Noel Murphy, "and you don't really have to do quite so much for them." But where does that leave Daniel Menaker? Doesn't his publisher worry that on a national level the book will be swamped? "Yes," said Jon Riley. "I don't think we are going to be defeated by the publication date. But it is a struggle. There's absolutely no point in denying it."