Why are so many new books coming out in October?

PUBLISHED: 19:00 10 October 2020 | UPDATED: 09:41 12 October 2020

Literary agent Isobel Dixon. Picture: Jack Ladenburg

Literary agent Isobel Dixon. Picture: Jack Ladenburg

Jack Ladenburg

Trustee of the National Centre for Writing in Norwich, Isobel Dixon, whose literary agency represents Roy Grace writer Peter James and Irish author Sheila O’Flanagan, tells us how coronavirus is re-writing the book world.

The run-up to Christmas is always a busy time in publishing, but due to the pandemic more books than ever are coming out in the next few weeks. Isobel Dixon is MD and head of books at the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, president of the Association of Authors’ Agents and a trustee of the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. She is also a poet and her most recent collection, Bearings, is published by Nine Arches. She tells us how they’re adapting to such unprecedented times.

What was the publishing schedule like for the authors you represent before lockdown happened, and how did that change?

I had books scheduled for early lockdown days, like Monique Roffey’s brilliant The Mermaid of Black Conch, where the publication date was too close to change, so Peepal Tree Press went ahead as planned in April. Tough for author and publisher to have to cancel what would have been a very lively launch party and to only be able to sell copies online for some time, but it’s a book that continues to win accolades and her hardy mermaid will weather those rough waters!

Two bestselling authors, crime writer Peter James and Irish author Sheila O’Flanagan had their books scheduled for May – Peter’s 16th Roy Grace crime novel Find Them Dead and Sheila O’Flanagan’s The Women Who Ran Away. Both titles were moved by their publishers to July after bookstores had re-opened, and each sold exceptionally well, in supermarkets, bookstores and online. Both books shot to their customary number one spots, Peter in the UK and Sheila in Ireland, and stayed in the top 10 for many weeks. Set to start filming for ITV in April, the Grace series, starring John Simm as Roy Grace, had to be put on hold in the spring, but fortunately filming in Brighton began in earnest in September.

How has the publishing industry innovated during the pandemic?

Even authors who had done very little online before have over these months adapted to doing Facebook Lives, Instagram Lives, and Zoom launches. I’m president of the Association of Authors’ Agents and the AAA held webinars for our agency members, including on online PR campaigns, while in my life as a poet I’ve enjoyed many fascinating and energising Zoom readings, with writers and poets in the US, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria and more. One of the advantages, as we’re also seeing for organisations like the Society of Authors and the National Centre for Writing, is that these events have become more accessible to a wider audience. Though we miss the social element, the human touch, and live voices, it’s wonderful that we do have the technology at our disposal and that more people who have issues with travel due to cost, disability or caring responsibilities, can now attend events around the country and indeed the world. In the future we will continue to see more innovation and hybrid and blended events, though will need to work out ways to ensure that there is a better income stream and book sales incentives to increase rewards for the writers and event organisers too.

Why is the period between September and December so important for the publishing industry?

The run-up to Christmas is important in every area of retail, with December the ultimate gifting season in many countries. In the northern hemisphere it’s the midwinter holiday too, a good time for some deep reading in those dark days. So it’s a crowded field of celebrity and gift books and fiction big hitters (and there’ll be a Peter James standalone I Follow You, out on 1 October too, as a well as the paperback of Find Them Dead later in the month). This 2020 season is particularly crammed, since many March-July books were moved into later slots. It’s also a strong selling season for the Booker Prize books of course.

It pains me even to say it but October is also a high point in the international publishing calendar because of my favourite event of the year, the Frankfurt Book Fair – last year was my 25th. Of course the physical exhibitors’ Fair has been called off, and our meetings and discussions about books will all be onscreen too, not in person. I will so miss that unique literary camaraderie and alchemy this year.

How do you think that Covid-19 will influence the books we will be reading in the next few years?

Some people say readers are looking for escapism – I think we’re looking for absorption – to be deeply absorbed in story, in other lives, imaginative horizons. Whether that’s via Middlemarch or a cracking thriller, I think good writing and believable characters we can identify with will continue to hold sway. There was an increase in reading during the Second World War and that rise was sustained post-war – we’ve seen a rise in reading during this crisis, more people turning to books for sustenance, a quiet place of private enjoyment even when stuck at home with your whole family. I believe that those who have discovered and rediscovered reading in this time will continue to relish the unique pleasures of good narrative – and I look forward to helping bring those books to readers!

Which new books are you looking forward to reading this autumn?

I’m at last reading Beloved, slowly savouring the extraordinary writing and freshly in awe of Toni Morrison’s mind and work – I suggested this for our Blake Friedmann Book Club, following on from Bernardine Evaristo’s glorious Girl, Woman, Other, which we read earlier in the summer. Though we have regular weekly meetings with colleagues on Zoom around agency work, it’s stimulating and refreshing to read and discuss beyond our own lists as well. Next up is James Baldwin, long on my to be read list.

My personal reading oasis is the Christmas break when publishing takes a proper breather, and I have Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House and a selection of Elizabeth McCracken’s short stories lined up for that time, as I look forward to her new collection The Souvenir Museum which is out in the UK next spring. And along the way I will be reading many more fantastic manuscripts by my authors!

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