Looking back at 2015 means that we can look forward to 2016. Sales of printed books grew in 2015, the first time in Nielsen BookScan terms since 2007, when the wider economy began its tilt towards recesssion. We may yet look upon last year as a turning point, that moment when the trade finally shrugged off the doubts of the recent past and simply got on with the job in hand.
The buoyancy the trade should feel is added to by the survey of independent booksellers, with the vast majority recording a bounce in sales of physical books this Christmas and renewed recognition from shoppers as to the value of the well-curated/loved bookshop. If reports from across the retail sector are to be believed, bookshops were among the star performers - along with “omnichannel retailers” such as John Lewis - last year.
The digital picture is more murky (and complex), but my assumption would be that e-book sales growth continued to stall for the major trade publishers, but that the wider electronic content market (including sales of self-published e-books, academic journals, audiobooks and apps) managed not only to grow but also to broaden its reach and ultimately widen its impact.
The positive blending of digital business with print that we saw throughout 2015 should be taken as one of the gifts of the year. As Hachette UK c.e.o. Tim Hely Hutchinson puts it in his look ahead to 2016, we must “have the imagination to see that our future goes beyond a print up/ e-book down analysis. The real job ahead of all of us is to ensure that we compete with all forms of digital media.” The launch of the Julian Fellowes app Belgravia is a notable marker, not least since it matches intent (as expressed by Hely Hutchinson) with action (from his colleagues at Orion).
Filleting the 2016 predictions further suggests that publishers are looking for digital platforms to create sales across different formats (this week’s runaway number one Joe Wicks is a good example); they are looking to hold a line on the value of that content (a particularly vexing issue for those big groups now back on agency terms); and are (finally/once again) addressing the very real concerns over staff diversity so that the industry, to quote HarperCollins UK c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne, can better reflect its readership. Authors too have risen up the agenda, a likely consequence of the Society of Authors, lobbying over author income as well as the impact of self-publishing. It may seem tangential, but Penguin Random House’s sale of Author Solutions is significant - particularly if the episode reminds us that publishing’s value is in what it adds, not what it takes.