A positive start

Thanks to a strong December based on hard work put in throughout the year, 2013 has got off to a positive start.

Many independent bookshops have talked of Christmas sales growth, as punters rejected Amazon for the high street. Waterstones and Blackwell’s each recorded a sales increase over 2011, while Foyles was not far behind, despite the ongoing challenge of the Crossrail work blocking off access to Charing Cross Road.

Digitally, publishers also performed incredibly well, both at Christmas and throughout the year, with some trade publishers now seeing e-books close to 30% of their overall sales. We also now have hard data to back up these statements. For the first time we have, with publishers’ permission, been able to include e-book sales numbers in our overall Review of the Year analysis, the first time such sales data will have been publicly recorded anywhere. The figures enable us to better estimate the size of the digital market, which we believe may have been worth close to £200m in 2012, based on volume sales of 65m.

Why is this important? For years we’ve been labouring under the assumption that books were somehow in decline, that reading, particularly of traditionally published books, was going out of fashion—pushed out by smartphones, iPads, computer games and, of course, the digital slush-pile. But the aggregate numbers we have been able to gather this week, and which we hope to build on in the weeks and months ahead, show a different picture. With confidence we can say more reading happened in 2012, more books were bought (from traditional outlets as well as through Amazon), and though Fifty Shades played its part, not all of them involved bondage.

The confidence displayed by our independents and chain bookshops, the agility of trade publishers to publish terrific print books, back them with strong marketing, and yet also turn them into digital equivalents, or in the case of some titles, new types of books completely, should not go unnoticed.

Does this feel like a swan-song? I doubt it. There will be challenges ahead, and 2013 may yet prove to have its grim dimensions, as the loss of Play.com and Reader’s Digest as a book publisher, suggests. New business models must be explored, partnerships seized upon, authors wooed, and customers understood. But we begin well.