We are often asked why we started a publishing company when the publishing world seems in such disarray, at least compared to its recent past.
People have a nostalgic view of the pre-internet industry: that it was simple and remunerative, comprising well-financed publishers, popular booksellers, book review sections in every newspaper, and just the right number of authors. It was never that easy. There were huge problems on the distribution side of the industry, battles between independent stores and chain stores, and between chain stores and publishers. There was consolidation among the large publishers and expensive competition for talent, among many other issues.
That notwithstanding, it was stable compared to what’s been happening over the last twenty years. We’ve had the advent of Amazon which fundamentally has changed bookselling, altering customer expectations, helping the chains put independent bookstores out of business, and then undermining the chains themselves.
We’ve had the rise of the e-book and the e-reader, and e-book subscription services like Scribd and Kindle Unlimited. These threatened to do for book pricing the same dirty that digitalization had done for music pricing. There was pressure, under an ethos that still prevails in some parts of the market, to make content free. Piracy became a significant problem. Google tried to digitize every book in the world and make the whole lot available in its search engine. Digital technology allowed more publishers into the game and permitted authors to self-publish at scale, and the number of titles released annually has exploded. Consolidation continued to the point where Penguin Random House, or rather its German parent, Bertelsmann, owns almost half the publishing industry.
There has been a lot of turmoil, and a lot of change, but it’s all relative. We came to publishing from print journalism where for the last decade revenues have been disappearing, on a rough average, by about 10% a year. After a decade of that, you’re left with about 30% of what you started with. Nothing in book publishing comes close to that. In fact, to a refugee from print journalism, books are a beacon of stability.
Every January in bookworld, we get data on the previous year’s sales. By we, I mean the Americans and the Brits. Canadian data, for some reason, lags (we’ll share them when we see them).
In the UK, print book sales as measured by volume were up 0.4% in 2019. Since 2014, sales have increased 0.5%. In other words, flat for the last five years, which for a legacy industry in the current environment is amazing. It’s actually better than that. Since 2010, prices for UK books are up 16%. And better still, the average book in 2019 sold at a discount of 23% off the suggested retail price compared to 32% a decade ago.
In another wonderful sign of good health from the UK, the number of independent bookshops increased for the third year running, from 868 in 2017 to 890 in 2019. Those increases come at the end of what had been a two-decade decline.
In Trumpland, print sales of books fell by 1.3% in volume in 2019, giving back the increase of 1.3% in 2018. They are still up almost 12% over 2013. That’s not bad, and prices have been increasing slightly as well.
On the bookselling front, the American Booksellers Association added 111 new members last year, up from 99 the previous year. There are now 2,550 members of the ABA. (All data above from Publisher’s Weekly and The Bookseller).
We admit the overall picture is far from robust, nothing to entice a venture capitalist, or someone who can operate a good carwash. But it is far from desperate, and it is nirvana compared to print journalism.
The Canadian sales numbers have lagged the US and UK ever so slightly over the last five years, which is nothing to cry about. Where we’re conspicuously behind is in bookselling. Our independent bookselling scene is a shambles. No one is even sure how many stores we have. The best guess I’ve heard is about 150 independent bookshops in Canada (compare that to 111 new stores in the US last year). And there doesn’t seem to be any growth in our bookselling market, despite Chapters/Indigo closing a lot of its big stores.
There is a lot more to say about the state of the book industry. Non-fiction, where we sit, remains one of the largest and healthiest sectors of the market. Kids are still reading. In fact, the Young Adult category is showing impressive growth. And the older part of the book-reading audience is refusing to die off: a recent study found that book-readers have 20% reduction in mortality risk compared to non-book readers.
There has been great progress (and new revenue) from audiobooks. There remains a huge and dangerous contingent out there who think content should be free, although in books the culprits aren’t digital idealists but librarians.
We have a lot more to say about librarians, and these other aspects of the industry in the weeks and months ahead. For now, let’s bask in the warm glow of relative stability.