As memories of summer vacations fade and the new magazines, TV shows and movies begin to land, we're once again treated to the realization that fall is also a busy time in the book business. Maybe because, admit it or not, we're still living on the school-year calendar, or maybe—as some publishers will tell you—it's because releasing books in the fall sets them on their trajectories to the holidays, when books magically turn into gifts. Whatever: September and October are always the months in which the greatest number of books are released. By our count, nearly 200 adult hardcovers with announced first printings of more than 100,000 will come out between September 1 and December 31. That's 20 million books, you back-to-schoolers, and is only a sliver of the publishing activity.

To the book world, this makes perfect sense—partly because most other media, of a similar mindset, will run stories about the upcoming season in movies and TV—and books. (Never mind that there are no guarantees, even at this time of year: should there be a major news story—think the 2000 election, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina—book coverage is the first to go.) Still, you have to wonder: if the average American buys at best a couple of new books a year, is she likely to buy them all now? Or, put another way, isn't bulking up the season a bit of overload for consumers, most of whom, after all, have the most leisure (i.e., reading) time in the months not ahead but just past? No one I talked to was able to explain why it's done how it's done. "It just has always been this way," one publisher said, inadvertently invoking a rationale you hear a lot in this business.

How important is timing in publishing? Let me put it this way: You know what they say about location in real estate? Yup. It's that important. "I feel like I was sent to Siberia," says a writer friend of mine whose big, powerful literary novel was relegated by his publisher to the after-Christmas non-rush; but whether it got sent there because the publisher thought it wasn't going to sell, or it didn't sell because it was sent there, is hard to figure.

I'm not saying this stuff is easy, or that you can make a blanket rule about when's the best time to publish. I do know, though, that some books are "made" by the fact that they're published at an empty time—that may account partly for the success of an otherwise unnoteworthy tome like Edward Klein's The Truth About Hillary—but I've also heard editors confess that if they had to do it all over again, they might do it differently. "I would have published Deafening [a beautiful commercial/literary first novel] in the summer or winter, rather than in the fall of 2003," says Grove Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin. The book sold about 10,000 copies in hardcover but, Entrekin says, didn't get the coverage it deserved, probably because there were too many big name authors getting all the attention.

"I guess I just got caught up in the excitement of the book," says another editor, who confessed to the same kind of wishful publishing behavior. "I thought it could compete."

Which sounds, for better and worse, a little like another of those rationales you hear a lot in this business.