Surprise, surprise

Consultants and pundits, look away now. The book market is performing in almost exactly the wrong way. The big publishers are not gaining market share; the big books are not getting bigger; in 2014 it was the publisher that had the fewest “big” hits that performed most strongly. 

The headline is this: at 43.9% the Big Three’s share of Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer Market is at its lowest since records began (in 2001), with each of Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins declining faster than the overall print market (the latter only by a whisker). The big winner was Pan Macmillan—up 9.8%, a remarkable performance since it had no bestsellers in 2014’s overall Top 50 (published last week)—with Lonely Planet and Faber also performing creditably. It was a strong year for children’s publishers (and divisions)—with Egmont at the front—in a sector that grew overall by 9.1%, led unquestionably by some smart brand, licence and evergreen publishing, from Minecraft to David Walliams to Julia Donaldson.

If I were to look for a theme from all this, I would say that publishing is better than what it was, informed by a closer understanding of what works in each channel—or as PRH UK boss Tom Weldon said last week, “greater visibility into what influences readers”—a rekindled relationship with booksellers and a more flexible approach to authors. Publishers have also become more fleet of foot than they were. We know about Minecraft, of course, and YouTube, but Simon & Schuster’s £1m from sales of loom-band books stands out, requiring both thought and speed. 

Defying what we sometimes read in the wider media, the e-book sector (from what we can tell from the figures supplied by the major publishers, see p6) continued to outperform print, with average growth of 15%. If the experience in the US is an accurate pointer, it will be the last year we can say this, but with a market size of around £350m this fledgling is now dug in. In fact, across print and digital it is likely that the book market grew in 2014, as it did in 2012. Digital has worked for the book business.

Now we need to take this and run with it—and some are already. This week we reported online about a joint venture between Cornerstone and thoughtful start-up Unbound; in print we document the launch of new independent publishers including digital-only Canelo, one to watch in 2015; change at the top of Little, Brown and the possible purchase of e-book site Blinkbox books by Waterstones.

We cannot expect everything that comes next to be positive: we should expect it to surprise us.