Predictions from bookstore chain executives and independent booksellers show little consensus about prospects for the holiday season. Many independent booksellers contacted by PW expressed some optimism, but also a certain wariness about Christmas 2004. Some booksellers were highly enthusiastic, but others contacted for comment did not want to talk—mainly because of their glum predictions. Forecasts from the chains were colored by the fact that last year's holiday period was the best in several years, making last year hard to beat.

The mixed sense of the season was perhaps best summed up by Borders chairman Greg Josefowicz, who told analysts in a conference call discussing third-quarter results that there is "reason to maintain an appropriate level of conservatism" about fourth-quarter results. Still, Josefowicz said, it was possible that the unusually high number of strong new titles in the quarter could help reverse the third-quarter slide in bestseller sales.

Part of Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio's caution about the fourth quarter stemmed in part from the fact that the period began with no books having the sales momentum that The Da Vinci Code and South Beach Diet had last year. Among recent hot titles are He's Just Not That into You; His Excellency: George Washington; I Am Charlotte Simmons; and The Perricone Promise. Riggio said things were "a bit brighter" on the children's side, led by tie-ins to The Polar Express and Lemony Snicket movies.

Books-A-Million chairman Clyde Anderson said steady sales late in the third quarter in the cooking and children's categories—segments that usually do well around the holidays—provide some cause for optimism that holiday sales will be respectable. He added that BAM expects to sell lots of copies of John Grisham's newest, The Broker, due out January 11 (before the close of BAM's fourth quarter at the end of that month).

In the independent bookselling ranks, bad weather—in the form of hurricanes and rainy summers—have hurt some stores; in a few cases, the effects continue to be felt. Feelings about the election were mixed. At some stores, customers continue to buy political books, while at others the intense election appeared to dull the reading habit. The state of the economy, which varies so much across the country, also affects booksellers' expectations. Still, many booksellers are very enthusiastic about certain titles—cookbooks are considered especially strong this year—and sales at a few stores have been boosted by popular author signings.

Vicki Whitaker, manager of the King's English in Salt Lake City, said her store has had an upward trend in sales: September was "a tad lower"; October was stronger; and November "is feeling very good. We are coming into the holiday season very strong," she said.

Sales at Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo., "are a little bit down from last year," when the store hosted some major events. "But if you take that out of the equation," co-owner Kris Kleindienst said, "sales are about the same." The store did well this year with books critical of the Bush administration, but those books now are "dead." Like others, Kleindienst said America is selling well, and she expects Ruth Reichl's Gourmet Cookbook and The Complete Cartoons of the NewYorker to make cash registers ring.

The optimism of Pam Price, owner of Book Shop of Beverly Farms, Beverly Farms, Mass., only translated into, "We're going to do the best we can to keep it as flat as possible. It's been challenging." She called the elections "unhelpful" because "everybody seemed very uncertain" beforehand. The election "made everything soft compared to previous years," agreed Tracy Taylor, manager of the Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle. Taylor hopes Elliott Bay will exceed last year's sales, "but I'd be happy if we met them."

Sales at Readers' Books in Sonoma, Calif., have improved since the election, according to co-owner Lilla Weinberger. She hopes that the holiday will be good, but added, "I have my doubts," mainly because of the economy, which has been down since August. "I don't see a major trend in the opposite direction."

At Mendham Books in Mendham, N.J., an upscale area, business "isn't boffo but it's solid," said owner Tom Williams. The store is "guardedly optimistic" about the fall. He, too, praised some titles, noting that cookbooks are a particularly strong area this year.

Kelly Justice, manager of Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., is optimistic about the holiday season. As early as the day after Halloween, the store began to see shoppers buying for Christmas. "The local economy seems to be okay," she said.

Susan Daigre, owner of Bookends in Bay St. Louis, Miss., was also optimistic, despite the "lingering effect" of Hurricane Ivan on the local economy and "not-so-good" sales going back to June. Daigre is taking some measures that show signs of caution: she is trimming sidelines, not ordering any books that can't be returned and only stocking items "I'm sure I can sell during the holidays."

Spurred on by a nonholiday miracle, Bob Hugo, owner of three Massachusetts bookstores—Spirit of '76 in Marblehead, Andover Bookstore in Andover and the Book Rack in Newburyport—predicted "a real good Christmas." A major reason: "The Red Sox helped people's moods a lot."