Part of the fun of editing The Bookseller is figuring out which bits of the sector are changing the fastest and how we should move to cover them. The challenge has become harder as the industry has evolved away from its print core and our means of communicating to readers have proliferated. But some things we have embraced: the magazine’s design pages (Perfect Bound) reflect the importance of the physical product; our expanded children’s coverage emulates that sector’s growth; and last year, as part of FutureBook, we introduced dedicated streams on the audiobook and EdTech sectors.
I write this not to plug The Bookseller’s breadth, but to highlight the fact that the book business remains an ever-expanding organism: there is no single linear narrative capable of portraying the sector accurately, nor is (pundits take note) one interpretation of it fair. In the digital age, we may have been promised simplicity - a global supply chain, where customers shop online, and books are printed on demand and distributed by drone - but in truth complexity followed. The pipe, the production line of new product, rather than speeding up, became twisted, with publishing strategies now having to take into account multiple formats, varying pricing and the demands of different retail channels. I have written that publishing is a simple business made complex by the people who work in it, but that was unfair. It is the world that is complex and layered.
There are positives to this. While the situation remains so, it creates opportunities within the wrinkles, either for maverick booksellers such as Wigtown’s Shaun Bythell dealing with the multiple lives of second-hand books; or publishers such as Birlinn’s Hugh Andrew, working his contacts in the trade.
But not everything survives the future. In an open letter published in The Bookseller this week, Society of Authors chief executive Nicola Solomon warns of the dangers of titles sold on “special sale” leaking into the open marketplace, partly as a consequence of Amazon allowing third-party resellers to bid for the buy button (for now only in the US). As I wrote two weeks ago, we cannot be happy that 99p has become the de facto price for digitally published commercial fiction (even on promotion), but we’ll be even less content should heavily discounted special sales stock begin to challenge the perceived value of new titles. Publishers are privately worried about this, and Solomon is right to raise it.
But a second lesson arising from this is just as important: Amazon’s ability to change the ground rules (either through strategy or carelessness) is an ever-present danger. It’s the one change we all regret.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.