The good publisher

On Monday 8th May the trade gathered at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London to celebrate the best of 2016 at the British Book Awards. Shortlisted companies included Transworld, Head of Zeus and Faber; imprints such as Bluebird and John Murray; booksellers from Waterstones to the National Trust; and individuals from Usborne editor Jenny Tyler to agent Eve White. Shortlisted books ranged from The Sellout to Born to Run to Lean in 15. If I were writing an annual report, I would say that there is much to cheer and a lot to build on. The book business, out of all the media and creative industries, looks to be in the best shape. Don’t give up now.

The numbers help. As last week’s statistics put out by the Publishers Association showed, 2016 was a vintage year for many, with home sales up 6% (across print and digital). Booksellers played their part, with Nielsen BookScan recording that sales in the fiction, non-fiction and children’s sectors rose, as did sales in Wales (up 7%) and Ireland (up 11%). This was also the period when Waterstones made a profit (to end April), the boy wizard Harry Potter re-apparated as a man, and Quercus m.d. Jon Butler managed to turn Brexit into a publishing triumph.

But, as I noted last week, the numbers alone can be misleading, while talk in the media of a print renaissance underplays the importance of digital to this business. The recovery of the book business is much broader, and as much about the publishing as it is about the buoyant markets. What characterises the publishers I visit is a playfulness around formats—from the 99p e-book, to a £14.99 copy of the The Essex Serpent; from a beautifully illustrated interactive book such as Illuminature, through to iExplore Bug, which brings augmented reality to print—and an understanding of which books work in which channels, and how best to drive sales, whether through direct marketing, price, bookshop events or social media.

Allied to this is a strong sense that the ground is fertile: that digital has cleared shelf space for more diverse publishing, and given booksellers room to sell. As this week’s regional focus on Wales shows, even very localised publishing (including Welsh-language books) can thrive when given attention in the media and visibility across retail.

Ten years ago we might have thought that digital would create global giants focused only on mega-sellers, but it has also created bigger niches capable of supporting different kinds of books and a greater range of publishing. The goal should be to realise the value of the publishing at both ends of the market, from The Good Immigrant to The Cursed Child—and to celebrate it.