Crunching the numbers

The release this week of the Publishers Association Publishing Yearbook 2017 is later than its usual spring publication, but timely nevertheless. The numbers, pointing to growth in fiction, non-fiction, audiobook, exports, rights and journals, are a welcome reminder that the UK publishing sector is broad and resolute.

This is also now a business operating in time-lapse—one moving from an old world to a new one at different speeds, but usually with success. The PA judges that total sales—at publisher level—grew 5% to £5.7bn, but within this big number is a journals business that is 80% digital, a children’s and schools sector that is more than 90% print, and a rights and coedition activity, worth £283m, that is largely predicated on human beings talking to each other.

The yearbook also reminds us why we should be wary of making too much of one set of figures. Last year, we were told Netflix was eating into reading time, with fiction sales down by a quarter over five years. Dramatic stuff.

This year’s report shows that a different take is just as likely: for only the second time since the Kindle first began to draw readers towards the e-book, print fiction sales are in growth, a fact also reinforced by Nielsen BookScan’s numbers. The 2017 figures, though, will likely have been plumped by Dan Brown and perhaps Sarah Perry, just as the market’s recent high points of 2011/12 were by E L James.

Where the decline has been felt is digital: the strong growth in e-book business reported at the beginning of this decade has been eroded by a shift to self-published titles and/or digital-only publishers (figures not captured by the PA), as well as lower pricing by the corporates. If consumers were migrating only to a lower-priced type of reading (or indeed subscription), we might be worried. But in print fiction is starting to hold its own, even against Netflix.

If the e-book has become tricksy, the growth of audio- books is some compensation. The PA estimates that at publisher prices the market grew 25% to £31m, and has restated its prior annual figures, which had looked a little conservative. Yet it remains the case that the sector—at consumer prices—is three times the PA number: the difference is the amount taken in by Audible and the figure (after discount) paid to publishers and, ultimately, creators. Audible’s investment in audio comes at a price.

On the naughty step is the schools sector, where printed book sales fell 12% to £158m, with no upside yet from digital textbooks. As Colin Hughes, m.d. of Collins Learning, puts it, the dip in spend following UK curriculum change has been “deeper than usual”, raising concerns that textbooks are on the front-lines of school budget cuts.

Exports were the real winner from 2017, thanks in part to the low pound, but also testament to the wide appeal of the products that publishers output: that export sales rose 8% to £3.4bn (£1.6bn from books) shows how words (and pictures) on a page, in whatever format they are delivered (including audio) travel near and far. With Brexit fast approaching, it’s a message the industry needs to reinforce and restate.