The smart book for a new market

The smart book for a new market

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the audio download market was rising to the challenge of a flagging e-book market, with growth at sustainable pricing levels and investment in new original content. But could the enhanced e-book also be making a return to bolster publisher income and re-spark interest in what some are now describing as “complex” books?

Last week The Bookseller looked at the e-book market with first half figures from the major publishers, concluding that what was once booming is now maturing. Volume e-book figures, supplied by Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, show a collective 5.3% rise in unit sales for the first six months of 2015.

The five per cent jump in sales is the shallowest collective rise since The Bookseller began collating e-book volume data from trade publishing’s biggest players in six and 12-month cycles. Caveats abound of course: this is just the Big Five, so it not only excludes other traditional publishers’ sales, but the self-published sector too. Nevertheless, the figures supplied suggest a market worth around £172m, or 24% of the entire print and digital market’s value.

This narrow growth comes at a time when the sustained downturn in print has come to an end, with growth of printed books through Nielsen’s TCM of 3% to £540m—it is the first time in seven years the first half print market has been up.

Why these two distinct markets are behaving as they are is tough to call. The indie author community will tell you that their sales remain healthy (although somewhat impacted by Kindle Unlimited) and that they are gaining share in key areas (such as romance) from traditional publishers, a situation that will become exacerbated as the big publishers return to full agency contracts. But the other key statistic is the slow-down in adoption rates: since Waterstones m.d. James Daunt noted how fewer Kindles have been selling over Christmas in his stores, a question mark has been raised over how strong the market for e-ink reading devices can still be. There was a time when each Amazon press release led with a boast about Kindle device sales, but its latest second-quarter PR contained only one mention of the Kindle, the launch of the new Kindle Paperwhite.

The print book market has also adapted, with both publishers and booksellers concentrating on those titles for which are not well served by the e-book: Go Set a Watchman being the obvious current example, alongside the welter of colouring-in titles that have come to the fore in 2015.

We might also be beginning to see that steady drift to mobile and tablet reading that many have long predicted. In that scenario while vanilla e-books will remain the engine of the digital market, the racier stuff might now be done on new devices. Just as the print market has accommodated the e-book, so the enhanced e-book might yet carve out a space outside of what may be a robust but largely established e-ink market.

Enter the complex e-book. Penguin Random House UK deputy c.e.o. Ian  Hudson told my colleagues that increasingly an important factor for the digital landscape in 2015 was that vanilla e-books “aren’t the only digital success story” for publishers, with Hudson pointing to its investment in audio and new distribution channels that service the non e-ink markets.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Ian Pears novel Arcadia, definitely coming to a print bookshop this autumn, with the app version to be launched in August. Faber may not be alone in rethinking this new world.

In The Bookseller’s piece last week, Hudson referenced an increased investment in a wide variety of apps and enhanced—or “complex”, as Hudson calls them—e-books, such as a special digital edition of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, featuring the full text of the novella alongside film clips and archive material (pictured, left); The Beano Search and Find app; and the “design-led digital experience” of Jamie Oliver’s 15-Minute Meals e-book.

Hachette’s head of digital George Walkley echoes this sentiment, with the group seeing “considerable growth in apps, especially in illustrated/ lifestyle publishing, and particularly for Octopus, which has recently released the first colouring-in apps in the market and had 15,000 downloads for the Ella’s Kitchen [cookery] app in its first week”.

Others are more cool about this, but watchful in a way that they won’t have been for the past few years. Sara Lloyd, Pan Mac’s digital and communications director, says she will be “keeping a close eye on the apps market” for the rest of 2015, particularly in children’s. She adds: “We’ll be interested to see the impact of new, well-designed, low-cost tablets for children, targeted at the family market, since younger children’s digital product remains a slow-growing area.”

When I wrote about Arcadia in June, I noted that three years on from the original announcement (of that app/book), Arcadia arrives into a slightly more circumspect environment. I was probably being too polite, but actually a month on from that perhaps we are already discovering that this new world is a touch more fertile than I’d imagined.