The noise and fury

Barely two weeks into 2015, and already the year is shaping up to be a humdinger. Booksellers are back! The print book is on the rise! The e-book is dead! The trade should be careful about such simple analyses, but behind such noisy headlines there is a nugget of wisdom. The celebrities may have failed to rise to the challenge of Christmas 2014, but publishers and booksellers mostly got it right over this peak period: book sales rose, with children’s moving out in front thanks to David Walliams, Jeff Kinney, Julia Donaldson and Minecraft. Booksellers delight!

The mood music coming out of the major chains—Waterstones, Blackwell’s and Foyles—has been matched by The Bookseller’s independent bookseller survey, where close to 80% of those who responded reported that book sales were up; and by the Booksellers Association’s version, where 55% of members were up. The bigger picture won’t be revealed until W H Smith and Amazon reveal their seasonal trading numbers, but with BookScan figures up for the last two weeks of December and the first week in January, there are hints that the strong end of the year could ripple on into a longer-lasting revival.

This time last year, I called the robust Christmas turned in by many a “remarkable performance, underpinned by some smart publishing”, but also remarked that 2013 would not be remembered as a vintage year. Last year was equally so-so, with too many independent bookshops, indie publishers and libraries falling by the wayside during a year that began smartly enough but then felt stubbornly underwhelming.

So if we begin 2015 in similar spirit, how will it turn out? The big publishers start in a state of mild flux, with HarperCollins and Hachette relocating, and Penguin Random House readying for a “year of implementation”. This may create space for others, as Pan Macmillan and Egmont showed in 2014, though many small and medium-sized publishers will continue to be challenged by a high street that needs continual care and attention.

The digital market looks worrisome, while remaining ripe with possibilities. The VAT now added to all UK sales of e-books is an unnecessary—if levelling—headache, but one hopes the fallout will prompt the government to look more closely at this marketplace. However, with Kindle device  sales reputedly stalled, the sector is facing the heady shift to tablet reading, necessitating closer inspection of new business models, such as subscription. We may also see new types of content coming to the fore, including that often neglected sector, audio. The podcast sensation “Serial” showed that we have entered a competitive environment that is now fully global, and where anyone’s content can be seen and heard.