The trouble with print

Last week the giant education businesses McGraw-Hill and Cengage announced their merger; a week earlier the US book distributor Baker & Taylor said it planned to shut its retail wholesale business; this week the J S Group, which runs the John Smith chain of academic bookstores, revealed that it plans to close nine campus shops, including outlets at Greenwich, Birmingham, Stirling and Sussex universities. What’s the connection? Print books—and how these businesses are dealing with the changes to how the physical texts that once sustained these operations are now being sold and consumed.

At last week’s Independent Publishers Guild conference, the University of Utah’s Rick Anderson said that academic libraries in the US were buying fewer and fewer print books, a trend that is only going to continue. “We will never stop [buying print] entirely, but how far above zero we end up at, I can’t tell you.” His view speaks to a wider shift that will impact some sectors earlier than others, but have repercussions for all as the mechanics of print production and supply evolve.

For McGraw-Hill and Cengage the question is how to profitably get the content they produce to the students that require it, in the format they want, and at a price they want to pay. Their conclusion is that, like Pearson, only by getting bigger will they be able to compete against their rival publishers, booksellers (such as the J S Group), and the tech giants that also now want to serve these institutions. All of this leaves the role of the traditional campus bookseller—stuck as the third party between the educational supplier and the institution—in doubt (as many have said), with the response of the J S Group to adapt its offer, moving away from the stockholding bookshop to an online store and campus rep.

For Baker & Taylor closing its books wholesale unit, which supplies US bookstores, is not a reflection of a decline in the demand for physical books, but of how high street retail now needs to compete with the 24-hour delivery offered by Amazon, with publishers’ own souped-up distribution centres increasingly competitive. In the UK, Hachette recently opened its Hely Hutchinson Centre, billed as the most advanced of its kind in Europe, which it hopes will eventually distribute half of all books in Britain, while Waterstones m.d. James Daunt has said it needs to make a £10m investment in its own hub. To compete with digital, how we move books around the supply chain, and at what cost, will become fundamental.

Print remains the dominant format in this business, of course. In the UK, at least, the format dominates all of the major market segments except for journals, including 90% of UK schoolbook sales, and 78% of academic/professional book sales. Print is central to the trade, but also key to how local publishing (see our Wales Country Focus) can serve its market and interests. It does not surprise me that print book sales in Wales (and the West) rose by 4% in 2018, double the rise in the wider United Kingdom. 

Nevertheless, a realignment—long expected—is now taking place.