Marvellous medicine

At some point back in 2013, I asked a senior publisher if they had a contingency plan for a world with fewer high street bookshops. It was a period when e-book sales were growing ever bigger, taking chunks out of print fiction’s market share; Amazon was revelling in its recent victory over those publishers who had pushed through agency terms for e-book sales; and Waterstones had not yet secured its future under m.d. James Daunt. It was the moment when Foyles’ then c.e.o., Sam Husain, wrote an open letter to publishers calling for a “complete rethink” of the bookselling model.

The response I got troubles me today, just as it did back then. The right books would find their way to the market, I was told, consumer demand would pull them through whatever the retail climate. Looking at how the market has changed since, the publisher may have had a point—or maybe they got lucky.

Our latest Review of the Year focuses on publishers, and confirms what we have known for some time: printed books are the marvellous medicine that gives the trade its colour. This is not a myopic view—many publishers also did well out of the first e-book boom, and many authors continue to do so—but the print book market is broad in the way the digital book market is not.

As a sector, print sustains us. It enables booksellers to trade economically (even in a tough climate for the high street), encourages publishers to invest for tomorrow (as with the success of Bluebird, the Pan Mac imprint behind current number one Lean in 15), and gives authors the time to carve out their careers (the Costa winner, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, is the author’s seventh novel with Macmillan Children’s Books).

By contrast, the e-book volume figures (once again supplied to us by the big trade publishers) show a complex market with those newly-minted agency contracts only adding to the intrigue. No one can seriously believe that digital reading is in retreat, but if the big publishers cannot grow this part of their business then either the ingredients are wrong, or the medicine has become muddled.

Yet, for all that, I still wonder about that senior publisher and their blithe confidence in a marketplace that seemed then anything but secure. But I think there is a line in the tributes to George Weidenfeld that provides the clue I’ve been missing. Head of Zeus chair Anthony Cheetham said of George: “In publishing, he found the hunt more interesting than the kill; once an author was secured, he moved on to the next. They were like trophies on the wall. I don’t think he took quite so much interest in the publishing of titles.” The past is an ever-present country for many of us, but the truth is that publishers can no longer afford to look away and assume the market will treat them as well today as it did in the past.

Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.