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An uncertain holiday season for the book industry

The holiday season is upon us, with Christmas six weeks (count ’em, folks) away, and Motoko Rich writes in The New York Times that U.S. booksellers and publishers are bracing for a difficult quarter:

Leonard S. Riggio, chairman and largest shareholder of Barnes & Noble, said in an internal memorandum predicting a dreadful holiday shopping season, as first reported in The Wall Street Journal last week, that never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in.

Last week HarperCollins, the books division of the News Corporation, reported that fiscal first-quarter operating income had slid to $3 million from $36 million a year earlier, despite its publication of the Oprah Winfrey-anointed novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.

Rich mentions tactics booksellers are using to encourage sales, and looks at an independent bookstore that is instituting a priority seating policy at book readings to customers who purchased the book. And though the retail season is looking soft, it’s apparently not getting in the way of big book deals.

Although some might be cautious about signing a debut novelist, most publishers said they were still aggressively pursuing deals for celebrity books and others with natural best-seller prospects. Last month Little, Brown & Company signed a deal with the comedian Tina Fey for a sum reported as more than $5 million, and Jerry Seinfeld was out with a book proposal this week that some publishers suggested could go for a high seven-figure advance.

One possible silver lining, Rich says, is that since books aren’t selling as well as they would in a better economy, it doesn’t take as many sales to call a book a “bestseller” — a tip to resumé-padding B-listers everywhere.

On the Canadian front, though, things could be very different — and not so dire — for publishers and booksellers. The Canadian Publishers’ Council says in a media release that “books are expected to be one of the most popular gift purchases of 2008,” and Deloitte’s Annual Holiday Survey predicts that holiday spending levels among Canadians will match or be slightly higher than last year, citing books third in a list of top 10 holiday gifts for 2008.