Digital and high r.r.p.s hitting hardback sales

Publishers and independent booksellers are stressing the importance of "working harder" on hardback fiction titles, as sales of the format fell by £3.2m over the first half of 2011.

Leading publishing figures and independent booksellers said increasing e-book sales were a contributing factor in the sales drop, but Simon & Schuster executive director Kerr MacRae said e-books are not enough to be an "excuse". According to Nielsen BookScan data, sales of hardback fiction titles fell by 10% year on year in the seven months to 30th July, with sales of paperback fiction down only 6% to 18th June. 

The recommended retail price for fiction hardbacks has correspondingly gone up over the period, with r.r.p. up by 0.9%, or 15p, year on year, and up 10.9%, or £1.61, on five years ago. Average discounts have also increased, rising this year to 37.2%, up from 34.8% last year and 29.8% five years ago. The average selling price has fallen by 2.8%, or 30p, year on year to £10.29, and is down 0.9%, or 9p, on five years ago. 

Independent booksellers have been hit, emphasising price was the largest factor dissuading customers, with consumers opting to wait for the paperback. Foyles c.e.o. Sam Husain said: "My guess is the concern is due to pricing as the average price appears to be about £20. It is compounded by not so many good titles being available. . . Paperbacks have been selling well and there has been a sense that people have moved to a more competitively priced product."

Patrick Neale, co-owner of Jaffé & Neale Bookshop in Chipping Norton, said publishers offering limited signed editions was one way of recouping lost sales, as that "pushes price issues away".  Vivian Archer, manager of Newham Bookshop in east London, said real support can make hardback fiction titles a success. However, she added: "We have definitely seen a slow-down on authors that would normally sell. A lot of fiction can be bought in supermarkets. There are so many people competing now." 

Headline sales director Aslan Byrne said though the economic climate meant price was putting some consumers off, the shift to e-books was "the biggest factor". Byrne said there was a "real future" for hardback fiction titles, attracting heavy book buyers and also as a means of making an impact with a début. However, he added some big name authors may see sales moving more from hardbacks to digital over the coming months.

He said: "I'll be surprised if there is not a year-on-year decline in hardback fiction, because some of those people who can't wait to have it [the next title from their favourite author] will go digital."

Publishing figures backed up booksellers over the need to support hardback fiction more strongly. MacRae at S&S said: "The consumer hasn't gone away, and they haven't all gone digitally native. The market is tough . . . Publishers need to work harder to grab their share."

He cited the importance of considering price, as S&S did by lowering the r.r.p. on Jackie Collins' latest novel to £14.99, and said: "We needed to make a bigger noise, a lower price, and make the book irresistible."

Penguin General m.d. Joanna Prior added that the first edition format and title must be matched carefully. She said: "The economics of hardback publishing is going to be harder to sustain as e-books become more popular."