A passable year

Over the past four weeks The Bookseller’s Reviews of the Year, based on Nielsen BookScan data and put together by the magazine’s features and insight editor Tom Tivnan, show a print book market that continues to strengthen—even as that sector changes. In the year of no major breakout hit or big trend, the market survived, a rump of publishers did well and a range of authors and illustrators made some money. It was not, perhaps, a vintage year, but nevertheless one to savour. Print is not just back; it is staying put.

Don’t be scared of celebrating this fact. When this magazine first began to report on the reviving print book market (around 2013), some commentators felt that we were mistaken, that we were confused by the trend for adult colouring books, and that we were denying the inevitable: in the end, the 99p e-book would do for all of us, or maybe it already had and we just hadn’t noticed. But they were wrong. The key graphs, showing how each major segment sags in the middle (from 2010 to 2014) as the trade weathers the recession, digital comes on stream, and booksellers such as Amazon, W H Smith, The Works and Waterstones revise their offers. But then there is an upturn—not always pronounced, but clear, present and well-established.

For 2017, some numbers jump out: fiction grew for a third year in a row, led by the Crime, Thriller & Adventure segment. But those categories that have benefited from recent trends, Health, Dieting & Wholefood Cookery (Joe Wicks) and Humour (Ladybirds and Enid Blyton), were well down. The data proves what is well known: the book market is an equal opportunities sector, nothing lasts forever, and what goes up comes down. There is a reason no publisher has won The British Book Awards 'Publisher of the Year' prize two years in succession.The vagaries of the market keep those at the top honest, and give others hope.

But there are deeper lessons to be drawn. Despite Nielsen’s (and Tom’s) best efforts, the data we now use is incomplete: there is no market overview of the e-book or audiobook download sectors; no window into self-publishing; and no up-to-date numbers on those publishers (Quarto and Bonnier Publishing, for example) whose major business is done through outlets not tracked by Nielsen BookScan. Some publishers are completely invisible to us.

What data there is is often misinterpreted: when the Arts Council tells us that literary fiction is in trouble, it does so on the basis of a General & Literary Fiction segment which includes Jojo Moyes’ novels but not Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker winners. Despite what you might read elsewhere, the top books are not increasing their share of the market—at least not through bookshops. And fiction is not dead. In short, the book market is not an easy read—and neither is it a misery memoir.