Fast and slow

According to the latest Nielsen BookScan figures, January was the first month since an EL James-dominated July 2012 that has seen a year-on-year rise in sales. At 2.2% we can hold off putting the bunting out, but add to this the faster than expected recovery in the wider economy, and we could be forgiven for thinking that the green shoots might find some sun.

Waterstones’ latest accounts contribute to the positive mood. With reduced losses in its past financial year behind it, according to its managing director James Daunt, the “core book business is looking pretty solid”. Daunt says he wants to re-invest in the business from its own cashflow, and he reckons he is now achieving that, making what he calls “proper cash”. Publishers might look to the chain’s continuing focus on stock levels and blanche, but Daunt is achieving what many thought he could not: a future. The success should not be underrated: high street visibility remains a cornerstone of the business, and without it the book trade would be very different.

The market numbers alongside Daunt’s confidence mean that we can begin to adjust our short-term projection for the sector. E-book sales growth has slowed quicker than expected, print has been more dogged, while international markets are proving to be an area of new growth for publishers as digital spreads (if somewhat unevenly).

However, the longer-term direction of travel remains the same: HarperCollins’ 360 imprint shows how publishers are orientating themselves to point at a global market, while in announcing its new sales structure, Penguin Random House deputy c.e.o. Ian Hudson spoke of establishing a “blueprint for a publisher as a consumer brand”.  

Demanding

In her blog, Osprey chief executive Rebecca Smart argues that we are an industry that needs to work at different speeds, and acknowledge that not everything needs to go through the same pipeline it once did. She is right. Yet the book sector has always been multi-headed, multi-format and multi-tracked, with publishers trying to cope with the needs of independent booksellers alongside the requirements of the multiples and the supermarkets. Different business models have long existed, from library supply to journals subscription. More recently publishers’ digital-only imprints have shown that slow need not be the only velocity.

These are all demanding markets, with their own rates of change. The constant is that every book needs to have the chance to break out, every author given the opportunity to find their audience. Whatever the speed, no book should be left behind.