ARE you "fashion forward"? Not content with planning your autumn wardrobe, you’ve already sussed what spring’s style will be. Or maybe you’re an "early adopter", with an order already placed for next year’s must-have gadget. And when it comes to holidays, naturally you only go to the spots that are still "undiscovered".
Forward thinking is what every business aspires to, and many consumers too, but we all know there are only two ways to predict the future. Either you’re telepathic, or you have inside knowledge.
So get this. The "book of the year" is about to descend on our nation’s stores. It’s Harry Potter, JRR Tolkien and Jane Austen combined. You might want to get on the phone to William Hill and bet on it winning the Booker.
I already knew all this four months ago. That’s when I saw the cover of the Bookseller Buyer’s Guide - the trade journal which is to books what London Fashion Week is to the rag trade. And there it was, a full-page ad heralding the September 20 publication of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - "the novel of the year".
The book is all about a magician and his apprentice in 18th-century London, and is about 800 pages long - which is 799 more than I can usually stomach of anything involving spells, potions and "faeries", not to mention other olde-world spellings like "chuse" and "shew". Still, many American reviewers thought otherwise, ensuring that Clarke’s debut was already set to arrive here with a fair wind behind it.
It may indeed be a wonderful book, but what’s interesting is the way its wonderfulness becomes an accepted fact before anybody has even had a chance to see it for themselves. Like all those clichs about the "new black", Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has become the new Harry Potter - for this season at least.
It’s not only books - everything is run more and more along the same lines as the fashion industry. Predicting the next big thing is a major preoccupation of the media - and it’s very easy for pundits to make themselves look clever and in touch, since they’re told what to look out for months in advance.
While it all makes perfect business sense - for producers, sellers and the media - it still leaves me wondering if choosing a movie to watch or a band to hear is really the same as buying a new shirt. People who want to make a fashion statement generally don’t care too much about quality - after all, it’s not meant to last. Nor would they try arguing that this year’s colour is any better than last year’s - it’s just different. But in the arts, isn’t quality meant to be the main issue? And aren’t we supposed to judge these things for ourselves?
The Booker Prize is a barometer of the way times are changing. Booker judges face a lot of media scrutiny, and they want to get it right. Ten or 20 years ago, that meant choosing books by safe names from the "literary establishment". But who exactly is the establishment today? As the Amis/Barnes generation get closer to their free bus passes, where are the authors to replace them?
Debut novelists have become the preferred commodity. Monica Ali and DBC Pierre were the hot tickets last year, and now Susanna Clarke has taken her place on the Booker long list alongside several other first-timers. The judges, it seems, have their finger on the literary pulse. Or at least, they read The Bookseller.
None of this, of course, is Clarke’s fault. She took 10 years to write her novel, and if she had started out with a business plan instead of a synopsis then nobody would now be interested in her work, which happens to fit perfectly into a ready-made marketing niche.
But spare a thought for all those other people who spent the last 10 years writing books for which no niche exists. Will any publisher take the time and effort to make one for them? Not these days, they won’t.
So get ready for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. You can even choose between a white cover and a black one. Which will be more collectable? That’s the great thing about being a fashion-forward reader - you don’t even need to open the book.