Is it the Netflix effect? Fiction revenues fell 3% in 2018, according to the Publishers Association’s Publishing Year Book 2018, the lowest figure for the last five years. Are box sets replacing ‘book sets’?
Publishers will take some comfort from healthy non-fiction/reference and children’s sales, up by 1% and 3% respectively. And audio continues to fly, with sales trebling between 2014 and 2018.
It has been a mixed week for physical bookselling. Waterstones MD James Daunt, who is poised to become CEO of Barnes & Noble as well, will be pleased that in the latter’s last fiscal results before it goes private – for the year ending 27 April 2019 – it converted a loss of $125.5m in fiscal 2018, to a net income of $3.8m. But he will be concerned that the chain still saw a 3% decline in revenue, a 1.9% drop in comparable store sales and a 3.9% drop in book sales. Yet there is no doubt that he will join the famous retailer on a tide of optimism on both sides of the Atlantic, a feeling that if anyone can perform a turnaround, it is him.
In the US market as a whole, for the second year in a row publisher sales to online retail channels, which totalled $8.03bn, exceeded sales to physical shops whose sales were $6.9bn, according to the Association of American Publishers annual StatShot. Although it reports a decline in total book sales of 7.7% over the last five years, this has been due to drops in educational and professional titles; the picture is more positive for trade books where, in the same five-year period, sales have increased by 5%.
No surprises as to the fastest growing format in the report: downloaded audio has risen 181.8% in the five years since 2014.
This week has seen big news for audio too, with the Stockholm-based audiobook and ebook distribution service BookBeat, part of Bonnier, adding 24 markets to its roster, bringing the total to 28. With Europe being such a sensitive topic at the moment, it’s hard not to read its list of ‘the 28’ from an EU perspective. Curiously, the service is in every EU country apart from Austria.
Independents have fared well in the US too, reporting figures level with 2018 for the period 1 January to 18 April 2019. Membership of the American Booksellers Association is up, as it is with the Booksellers Association on this side of the water. But in New York Chris Doebin, owner of mini-chain Book Culture said his four stores are in danger of closing soon. “We need financial assistance or investment on an interim basis to help us find our footing,” he said, going on to ask the City authorities to intervene.
Among reasons are high staffing costs brought on by statutory increases in the minimum wage, but also a more familiar issue. As he put it on Facebook: “We do not reject large business, or internet commerce, but we know that we can’t build a future by accepting that businesses simply extract and accumulate. We need to support a culture of businesses that serve our communities holistically. And we need to move to a greater diversity of ownership not towards more consolidation.”
In London, indie Travelling Through in Lambeth, has had to close – and owner Emma Carmichael went straight to the nub of the issue, telling the Bookseller. “Books are seen as a cheap commodity, rather than something of value. If you can get it for £2.99 on a Kindle or Amazon, they will do that, but perversely we have a situation where people will spend £2.40 a day for a coffee.” But she did hold out the possibility of a re-focusing by indies so that they “[understand] better what the customer thinks they want ie. Nostalgia, cosiness, books…”
Meanwhile, near the Equator, the star speaker at the International Publishers Association’s seminar on African publishing, held in Nairobi, Kenya, was the 81-year-old novelist, writer, activist and academic Ngugi wa Thiong’o who gave a captivating talk on the ongoing effects of colonialism and the importance of publishing in indigenous languages.
This venerable figure, who is frequently tipped for the Nobel Prize, has an unusual claim to publishing fame. He is one of only a tiny handful of authors published by Penguin Classics who are still alive. Please, do not mention Morrissey. He does not count.
Finally, many congratulations to Bill Samuel – ‘booksellerbill’ on twitter – who is Christina Foyle’s nephew and has published a lovely memoir of his long involvement with the great store. An Accidental Bookseller was launched – where else – at the store’s top floor events space where Book Trade Benevolent Society Chairman Jonathan Nowell proposed a toast to Samuel, calling him “a true mensch”. Hear, hear.
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.