The inky kids

What has been the big story for the book business this year? The answer is obvious: the return of print. Whichever way you spin it, the surprise strength in physical sales feels both special and pivotal. Unravelling the story behind this is not simple and the lines of narratives are not linear, as the mooted closure of Penguin Random House’s Rugby distribution centre and the continuing decline in library numbers show. Nevertheless, the market growth that began falteringly has emerged as a major plot twist.

Retail is a key character. Waterstones and W H Smith have realigned themselves to focus on their core audiences, creating space for each other and for different books; independent booksellers are benefitting from a renewed fetish for (and attention to) localism; while the supermarkets and online booksellers such as Amazon (as well as the growing Bertrams offshoot Wordery) have seized on a broader catalogue, no longer dominated by the cut-price celebrity memoir.

In 2015 there was room for Go Set a Watchman and Grey; The Amazing Book is Not on Fire and The Road to Little Dribbling. Not only is the TCM up by both value and volume, the average selling price is up, too: whisper it, after 20 years, we may finally have sussed out how to respond to the ending of fixed prices. The improving economy also has a walk-on role, even if its impact on the high street generally has yet to be felt. The recession has been as big a player as digital in what happened to this industry over the past half-decade, and its lifting is key.

The publishing is also part of the story arc. The year has been marked by some extraordinary book feats, from the Millie Marotta/Johanna Basford axis to Harry Potter, from Marlon James to Elena Ferrante, from Paula Hawkins to Ella Woodward, from the new adult Ladybird range to Mog. At last week’s FutureBook Conference, we heard that publishers had to go mobile, find new audiences, broaden the retail footprint and discover new content types. The irony is that many did—in the print market. Ink is incredibly important to this sector, and publishers are deft at reinventing what can be done with it. It is little wonder that, even at FutureBook, two of the presentations came from print-on-demand publishers (Lost My Name and This is Your Cookbook), and I expect to see more use made of new technologies for print in the years ahead.

But mostly the 2015 story is about the customers (or as we once knew them, readers). Whatever we do, however we do it, whoever sells it to them, the consumer likes “the book”. And the more we give it to them in the ways they want it, filled with the content they desire, the more they seem to like what “the book” conveys to them. It is a Christmas message to believe in for 2016.