Has the mood in the book trade ever been so different to the mood of the nation? As the UK faces the uncertainty of Brexit, the possibility of another general election and the likelihood of a sustained period of economic weakness, the book business could hardly be in ruder health. Nielsen-recorded print book sales are up (again); the number of independent booksellers is on the rise—and those who responded to this magazine’s survey were positive about festive trading, and the future; and there is a freshness about the end of year charts, with new faces such as Sally Rooney and Gail Honeyman jostling with the old favourites.
When I remarked on the trade’s vibrancy to a friend last week, he said I looked surprised. He was right: HMV’s fall into administration just after Christmas shows how another future could have been possible, while the news that Amazon paid £63m in business rates is yet more evidence of how the odds are stacked against the high street.
But perhaps I should be less amazed—the book market has long behaved unusually. It is broader than we think and more resolute than we acknowledge. The big books are not as dominant as they might be—compared to, say, cinema, where just 100 films make up 99% of box-office takings, the book market’s top 100 titles account for less than 10% of all takings through the tills. Meanwhile, the number of authors doing very well is on the rise: for an eighth consecutive year the number selling at least seven figures through the Nielsen-measured market has increased. It is now 127.
Furthermore, while there is a tendency to focus our attention on the action at the top of the charts, what lies beneath is equally important. The books beloved of indies (new and old) are not those same titles that dominate in the chains, partly out of necessity because smaller bookshops cannot compete on price, but also simply because customers’ tastes are diverse. The lesson from Waterstones’ HMV years was that book buyers did not like identi-kit shops: they still don’t.
Two decades of Amazon retail has also re-shaped how we buy books. As readers, we expect to be able to get everything—from deep backlist to reprinted classics to bestsellers—quickly and in whatever format we desire. And importantly, we expect choice. For years we have rolled our eyes at the phrase “range Christmas”, where no big bestseller dominates trading, not realising that this has become a core strength, possibly even part of the DNA.
Not everyone will agree with this. To some publishing appears homogeneous, the hits humdrum, the choices illusory—and the Publishers Association’s second workforce survey, showing how publishing is lagging behind society in terms of its make-up, will only reinforce these views. And they have a point. We cannot truly diversify what we publish until we make diverse those who make the publishing decisions, those who sell the books and those who write them.
But we shouldn’t let the truth of this get in the way of the facts of the marketplace: the building blocks are strong.