By the numbers

Naysayers, look away now: if 2015 was a turnaround year for the publishing business—when print returned to growth and digital stayed put—2016 was even better. The latest numbers issued by the Publishers Association in its annual yearbook show that UK publishers generated sales of £4.8bn across their print and digital operations in 2016. That was up 7% on 2015 and was driven by strong growth (again) for printed books, journals and exports; there was also a return to growth in the children’s sector; and a shout out from the audiobook business, where sales rose 28%.

In his press statement, PA chief executive Stephen Lotinga writes that “UK publishing is a world leader”. Lotinga is right to focus on this international success in his interview with The Bookseller, as well as the breadth of publishing covered by the yearbook.

As Brexit negotiations kick in, getting the message across about the former will be key: UK publishers sell more of their goods abroad than at home, with Europe the largest market—not all of this, says Lotinga, is a quirk of the devaluation of the pound. The latter is also important: you cannot understand this business without acknowledging that it is about more than Joe Wicks, colouring books or heritage brands—more than a third of the £2.6bn in exports, for example, came from journals (mostly digital).

There are areas of concern. As we have noted before, the e-book business for the major publishers remains in decline (down 17% to £204m in 2016). So is fiction, in the UK down 16% since 2013 (in “p” and “e”) to £356m and in print alone down by a third since 2012’s high point. Here the data is a little wobbly; many readers now choose to read fiction digitally, and many choose books on the basis of price, not publisher. E-book specialist Bookouture sold six million e-books in 2016, yet its numbers are not recorded in the yearbook. Ditto those of Head of Zeus, Endeavour Press, Amazon Publishing or self-published writers. Were they included, our understanding of the fiction market would change fundamentally. Were we a little clearer about this missing bit, we would not today be reading about how Netflix was killing off the novel or that the e-book was dead (again). The audiobook download market (of which there is much coverage in this week’s magazine) is a similar head-scratcher. The PA has the sector in growth, but with a value of £16m (at invoice level) far off a market now said to be worth closer to £100m (at consumer prices).

Some of this reflects the complexity of the market, and last year Lotinga said the yearbook would need to adapt to these changes. I would widen the challenge and state it simply: publishing needs to make sure these data gaps don’t grow, because what we don’t know might actually be hurting us. That £4.8bn figure tells me that we are big and brave enough to mount a collective mission to examine these new worlds.