Digital to the rescue

The dust is still settling from Christmas but the trends are clear: the celeb market down, cookery down, but other areas reasonably strong, and the bloodbath some had predicted was partially averted.

The Steve Jobs biog and The Etymologicon were this year’s dark horses. Bricks-and-mortar stores had a great pre-Christmas week after online’s last delivery day had passed, while Christmas Day itself is now, courtesy of e-readers, a day to sell books in considerable numbers. Print sales for 2011 were down 6%, but digital will have offset much, perhaps most, of that.

The coming year feels, as Tom Weldon puts it, as if it will be “a year of unusual consequence”. Quite simply, there is lots going on. Publishers have to move more of their revenues to digital while making enough money from print to keep the show on the road. All traditional bookshops and chains must figure out how to make a profit against this unforgiving backdrop, perhaps by linking physical books with online. And with the growth of e-books will come the concomitant growth in e-book piracy, which the trade must nip in the bud—perhaps with the help of Google, itself now a player in the trade.

E-books represent the first format change in living memory, and with a probable market share of around 20% by next Christmas, a generation of mananagement who have never dealt with a format change before will need to adapt fast.  

Unfortunately this rethink is happening in the midst of a near-recession. The consumer mood right now is very dark, although it will lift gradually through the year. The Jubilee and Olympics will provide a shot in the arm, while by next autumn the euro crisis will have blown itself out. For publishers, e-enabled export will be a welcome fillip as many emerging economies are growing fast. This could also be the year when, courtesy of e-books, customer (i.e. reader) data finally arrives in publishing. All that remains is to figure out what to do with it.