Snapshot for 21 February 2020

Snapshot for 21 February 2020

The global book industry’s most international evening is nearly upon us.  The London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards, organised once again with the Publishers Association, takes place on 10 March and this year sees a record number of 29 countries represented in the shortlists, more if the audience is included too of course (and it certainly should be – it is an integral part of evening).  The event can be quite a noisy, in a good way, and the shouts from the floor are very much part of the evening; the Brazilians were particularly exuberant a couple of years back.  Above all, it is the international, inclusive nature of the evening that makes it special.

This year a number of countries have been shortlisted for the first time, including Colombia, Croatia, Mozambique, Uganda and Yemen.  The USA leads the way with five short-listings, followed by India (3), Egypt (3), Canada (2), Germany (2) and New Zealand (2).  Mozambique’s literary translation initiative SM Traducoes is shortlisted as is the educational work undertaken by the World Literacy Foundation in Colombia and Uganda.

From Mozambique and Uganda to Kenya where publisher Angela Wachuka and writer Wanjiru Koinange, founded the non-profit Book Bank Trust to restore and renovate Nairobi’s colonial era McMillan Library and associated branches.  It has just announced the start of renovation work on one of the sister libraries, thanks to support from the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund which was set up by a donation from the NGO Dubai Cares and is administered by the International Publishers Association.

Next stop: Canada.  The Indigo Books & Music chain announced a tough set of results for what should be the best quarter, ending 28 December 2019.  It reported a 9.9% fall in revenue, with sales at superstores open at least a year down 10.1% and sales at smaller format stores open at least a year down 11.2%.  Online sales were even worse, down 12.7%.   CEO Heather Reisman blamed the lack of a runaway bestseller like Michelle Obama’s Becoming, saying: “It’s the first year I’ve ever been in the business where there was not a single book – not a single book – that gained any traction whatsoever.  She noted that in the equivalent quarter in 2018, “out top two books accounted for several hundred thousand units” in sales, compared with 2019 where “our top couple of books altogether didn’t break 100,000 units”.

Yet she believes the biggest challenge for physical bookstores is not necessarily the presence of a bestseller, but technology.  “Our biggest challenge is binge-watching and the amount of time people are spending on their technology,” she said, adding that this had cut into evening footfall in stores.  To combat this she said the chain was experimenting with “a number of things to augment traffic on the weekend to make up for traffic we’ve lost in the night time”.

Across the border there was similar downbeat news from US bookstores.  The sector finished the year with a 5.75% sales drop compared with 2018, according to preliminary estimates from the US Census Bureau.  Booksellers also blamed the lack of a breakout hit during the holiday period, with sales in December down by 7.5%.  Amusingly, in its report Publishers Weekly conflated two famous titles, saying ‘with the exception of I know where the Crawdads Sing there was no huge bestseller in 2019’.  This was a combination of Maya Angelou’s I know why the Caged Bird Sings and Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, an easy mistake to make.

At about the same time that the #DignidadLiteraria protest group was meeting with Macmillan in Manhattan – where it secured commitments from the publisher to publish more works by Latinx authors and address Latinx representation among its staff – Penguin Random House imprint One World was announcing the appointment of Elizabeth Mendez Berry, co-founder of the philanthropic initiative the Latinx Justice Fund, as vice president and executive editor.  Her brief is to expand One World’s list in Latinx literature, feminism, cultural analysis and reported non-fiction.

Finally, congratulations to Francis Bennett, co-founder of Book Data, who has interrupted his retirement to become a publisher.  His Marble Hill Publishers is the latest publisher to take a geographic location or feature for its name.  Bennett lives close to Marble Hill House in south west London, and his new venture follows that of ‘geographical’ imprints Borough (HarperCollins), Fleet (Hachette) and Seven Dials (Orion).  We wish the new venture well.


Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.

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