If this week began with a bang—the British Book Industry Awards were held on Monday—then it didn’t end with a whimper. The release, today (13th May), of the Publishers Association’s annual Statistics Yearbook shows just how ruddy this business has become. The figures are complex, but the précis is clear: the industry has passed a danger point, with physical book sales mounting a comeback as digital’s ability to disrupt has diminished. As managing director of Penguin General and outgoing PA president Joanna Prior puts it in her introduction, the “suggestion that the physical book is doomed can now definitively be refuted as we trade less neurotically in a more stable, multiformat world”.
If the awards are about patting ourselves on the back, the PA’s analysis is a timely remainder for everyone watching that we do not spend all of our time sipping champagne. Real work was done in 2015, and it mostly paid off.
The raw numbers underline the gentle rebalancing we have long remarked on in The Bookseller, with physical book sales either in growth (or flat), consumer e-book sales down 11%, but other digital sales (audio and academic) continuing to march on. It was a difficult year for children’s books (after huge growth the previous year), but a strong 12 months for non-fiction sales—putting that sector above £800m again—a decent period for fiction and a good year for sales of schoolbooks and journals. But both the English Language Teaching (ELT) and the academic/ professional book sectors had it tougher.
In previous years I have noted how digital and print tend to play tag, with one format up as the other declines. In some areas there has also been an expectation that digital would take up print’s slack, and vice versa. We now need to live in a more nuanced world: in some segments the digital shift seems way off, in others it is just arriving and, more alarmingly, in parts it may simply have moved out of view. The numbers can also be misleading: in journals the figure for article publication charges is tiny, but the impact of Open Access will be profound. In trade, self-publishing is now recognised in the commentary, not just the appendix, even though there is no real data.
PA c.e.o. Stephen Lotinga is right to suggest that the yearbook will need to adapt to “properly” reflect the industry’s development. As he writes in his introduction: “Statistics matter, not least for informing business decisions, but especially when we are trying to influence the business and regulatory environment in which we operate.”
This is important: the clearer our vision is of this business the more likely we are to avoid a hangover from the good times.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.