Keep it interesting

We live in interesting times. In my leader column last week, I wrote about a “new reality”, as a drastically changed marketplace puts pressure on all book businesses. The news this week that indie press Quercus has put itself up for sale shows how quickly reality bites.

We may quibble about how much we can learn from one company’s misfortunes. The company, under its ebullient chief executive Mark Smith, was always ambitious, but it was not able to capitalise on the Stieg Larsson legacy to build a more broadly-based operation, and its investors may simply have lost patience. But it also got caught between a high street that has become more conservative in its buying patterns, and an e-book market that has flattened more quickly than was expected.

As this week’s lead story shows, the slowdown in e-book growth has been dramatic. The data exclusively provided to The Bookseller by the top publishers shows a segment that, having doubled in size in 2012, grew only by a fifth in 2013. Yes, that is still growth, Jim, but not as we knew it.

This is hardly a disaster in itself. As publishers told us this week, book sales (“p” and “e”), are now likely to resume a pattern more normal for this industry, with the difference made by the hits, rather than the market shift.

No going back

We might conclude that this is business as usual, but there is nothing normal about this business. Three years of extraordinary e-book growth have strengthened Amazon, weakened the high street, and led to a revolution in how authors can choose to be published. Even if the e-book market continues to flag, there is no going back on this.

Publishers are going to have to redouble their efforts to maximise their sales across all channels, while making sure these channels have a reason to take a risk on their titles. The bigger ones will build their own routes to consumers, with insight into those readers vital. This may disadvantage smaller players, even more than now. As Smith said:  “The publishing industry seems to be polarising around very big and very small companies.”

There is truth in that, but it is not (yet) the whole story. As last week’s Review of the Year showed, the big brands are doing less well in physical than they were, as bookshops search for new talent not being heavily discounted online or in supermarkets. Similarly, this week we note that the big publishers are becoming less dominant, taking their lowest share of the TCM since records began in 2001.

This is a market that resists simple analysis, and some might wish that times were less interesting, but an interesting marketplace means a diverse and unpredictable one, and that is good for books.