The bigger picture

The Publishers Association’s Publishing Yearbook may arrive later in the year than we would like, but it remains a significant moment for the trade—the big picture here is of digital building, audio swelling, and exports steadfast. Resilience is an over-used word, but as PA c.e.o. Stephen Lotinga says in his introduction to the report, there is a “marked resilience” that is made more notable given, well, everything else.

There are two stories here: one about the statistics and the other about their publication. The stats show a mixed picture. After a good run, growth in the consumer books business has come to a halt—and agents, who worry about this stuff more than most, may quibble with Hachette c.e.o. David Shelley’s depiction of 2018 as being “another stellar year”. Of course, the odd thing is that it felt better at the time than it has turned out to be in the numbers—in the year of Michelle Obama, Adam Kay, Gail Honeyman and Heather Morris, we might have expected more.

Fiction was the problem child—close to £30m in lost print sales, not entirely made up in non-fiction growth or the transfer to digital. As for non-fiction, the UK was actually static. The growth was in export. That said, the consumer book business has put on £200m in sales over the past four years—much of it from exports—so if this is going to hurt, it may take a few more years to show.

Other areas fared less well. Education was described as being in the “perfect storm”, with a steep decline in spend on physical texts offset neither by digital nor exports. Digital, it seems, is the Godot of this sector. Not so for academic publishers where, at £2.2bn, digital is twice the size of print, and despite a decline in print sales in 2018, the real pressure being felt is over business models.

The story around the publication of the Yearbook this year is its steady improvement, first with the journals data, and rights income, and now this year with the estimates, based on Nielsen’s consumer surveys, of the market for self-published titles—combining to generate an overall sales figure of £6.1bn. For students of recent publishing history, in 2013 the same number was £4.3bn. We cannot keep uncovering pots of hidden publishing gold, but the Yearbook shows the value of having an open approach to data collection that captures a market in flux.

The addition of non-traditional (and non-PA) publishers to its digital panel is a case in point. For years the industry has been accused of preferring to look at the world as the big publishers would like it to be, rather than how it is. Ironically, the new numbers hardly change the game at all—e-books are still said to be falling, the digital momentum having shifted to audio.

The story of publishing is not just around resilience, of course, but of diversity and indefatigability, as evidenced in this week’s “Northern” issue. Publishing is and always has been more than a sum of its parts, or even the totals of its statistics. The bigger picture is of a sector growing its footprint even as the ground beneath it shifts.