In the past few years we have seen the worst economic conditions in 60 years, but you would not know it if you looked at Theatreland. The three years since the credit crunch hit have been the most lucrative in London theatre history. According to the Society of London Theatre, ticket sales broke the £500m mark for the first time in 2009 and the box office hit its highest point ever in 2010 with 14.2 million people buying £512.3m worth of tickets in the capital, an average of over £36 per ticket.
The boffo box office has perhaps made a number of theatre producers rich, but has that bonanza filtered down to drama publishers? Well, yes and no, says Nick Hern, the former Methuen editor who formed his eponymous specialist drama publisher Nick Hern Books (NHB) in 1988. "I can't really account for the boom in the theatre, given the economy. Yet it has been extraordinarily wonderful, and we have had our best three years ever. But it is not necessarily because of the big West End shows which generate a lot of the ticket sales, but aren't really what we do."
Indeed, serious specialist drama publishers such as NHB, Oberon and Bloomsbury-owned Methuen, or the drama divisions of Faber and Routledge, rarely make any direct sales out of the likes of "Legally Blonde: The Musical", "Mamma Mia!" or "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert". Yet the more high-brow/new play end of the theatre books market, where specialist publishers largely operate, has also seen a rise.
Drama is not a huge category through Nielsen BookScan's Total Consumer Market, but it is on the up (and as we discuss below, BookScan sales just began to scratch the surface of the drama market). In 2005, the category had value sales of just under £3.3m, which has risen steadily year on year to just under £4.1m in 2010.
In the bestseller charts provided, we can see how much students drive the market. Leading the field in the contemporary plays top 10 is Willy Russell's Blood Brothers (Methuen). The play has been running for 22 years in the West End, but the bulk of its BookScan sales come from it being on the GCSE English curriculum. Many of the titles on all three charts have, of course, had runs at major theatres in recent years—such as Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa (Faber) at the Old Vic, Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge (Penguin) and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (Faber), both at the Duke of York's in London—yet the majority benefit by being on school or university reading lists.
A look at the BookScan bestsellers since records began in 1998 also reveals how much students control the plays market, as it is dominated by classics—and cut-price ones at that. The £2 Penguin Popular Classics edition of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet tops the list by almost 20,000 copies, with an average selling price of £1.35.
Penguin and Shakespeare, in fact, rule the all-time drama bestseller list: 32 of the top 50 best selling plays are published under the Penguin Classics or Modern Classics lists, while 25 of the top 50 were written by the Bard of Avon—all of them Penguin editions except three different editions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare published by Wordsworth, Collins and Oxford University Press.
Most of the specialist drama publishers do publish classics—Methuen has its World Classics and Arden Shakespeare lists, for example. But what makes a successful drama classics list, and can they compete with the likes of Penguin? "It is difficult to break into the classics market, and it quite simply comes down to price," says Hern, whose NHB Classics start at a recommended retail price of £3.99. "I was in Foyles recently and I watched a couple of students looking through the drama section and coming up with the £1 Dover edition. You have to make a quality book, but at a reasonable price."
Outside the TCM
BookScan numbers, however, do not tell the full story for the drama books market. A good portion of specialist theatre book sales are generated at the theatres themselves, in the form of production specific scripts—with additional information about the theatre, cast and company—printed for the run. "I call them the thinking person's T-shirt," says James Hogan, the publisher at Oberon, which he founded 25 years ago. "People come to the theatre and want to bring home something to remind them of their experience."
Depending on length of the run, or if the production is touring, this can lead to sales of thousands of copies—a considerable number in the drama market. Hogan says that most production editions are "ephemeral, but some stick"—some even far outlasting the performance, particularly if there is a bit of star power attached to it. Through its website Oberon has "sold thousands" of its edition of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, which ran at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009, long after the production ended, solely because of Oberon's decision to slap the production's lead and former "X-Files" star Gillian Anderson on the cover.
Production editions underscore the need for drama publishers to diversify. "We have a good relationship with the trade, particularly Waterstone's," says Hogan. "They've been quite reasonable and have supported us as much as they can, but they are certainly going through some problems now and they are not a charitable organisation. We are a niche market within a niche market. I learned a long time ago that we cannot survive on selling scripts alone through shops; we simply don't get enough orders through the trade."
One of Oberon's new diversifications is digital, which it is "rushing headlong" into, and it will begin selling e-books direct on its website in the next few months. Hogan says: "I see it taking off quite quickly. Just as we don't blame the trade for not inundating us with orders, equally they shouldn't blame us for exploring every avenue; [digital] is the only retail avenue left to diversify into."
An increasingly big revenue maker for many a drama publisher is licensing plays for production—Methuen, Samuel French and NHB are particularly successful at this. It is not a huge amount—£70 per performance, of which 80%–90% goes to the playwright—and there are, of course administration costs associated with it. Yet it adds up and for some it can be more than a nice little side earner; for NHB it amounts to about half the publisher's annual revenue.
That play licensing revenue is increasing accounts for another growth area for drama publishers: the how-to guides for students and professionals. It may be the "Britain's Got Talent" effect, but more and more people are becoming interested in performance. In 2010 a record number of students did GCSE drama and AS and A Level theatre studies—over 90,000, up 3% over the previous year. Education publishers, in particular, are feeling this boon—from Samuel French's student edition list to Nelson Thorne's Shakespeare Made Easy series to the Heinemann Plays for 14–16+. Drama courses at university and within further education have also had a rise, leading to increased sales in books aimed at practioners.
Hern welcomes this, but in a boom time for both theatre sales and the student market, strikes a note of concern. "I am worried about the government's regime of cuts. Both the slashing of Arts Council money for theatres, which are always struggling anyway, and the cuts to education, which could have a devastating knock-on effect." He pauses and laughs: "Still, we have been going for almost 25 years, and it's never been an easy market."