Publishing Trends

Andrew Lownie looks at some recent articles on publishing trends.

The daily e mail newsletters Book2book and Publishers Lunch, which provide a range of insights into the current publishing scene, have several articles of interest. Motoko Rich in the New York Times writes on ‘The New Austerity in Publishing’ noting cut backs in American corporate junkets , such as sales conferences, foreign book fairs, and publishing lunches:

Book sales have deteriorated since the beginning of October, falling about 7 % compared with the same period the previous year, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks about 70 % of sales. That slide is driving much of the immediate cutbacks, but the publishing industry is also being convulsed by longer-term trends, including a shift towards digital reading and competition from an array of entertainment options like video games and online social networking.

He quotes well-known US literary agent Amanda Urban who says that “lavish practices could not be sustained by a slow-growth, low-margin industry that can’t charge luxury prices.” The industry is reassessing the cost benefit of many of its practices such as widespread distribution of proof copies, permitting retailers to return unsold books and the level of advances. A new imprint at Harper Collins, Harper Studio, is already limiting advances to $100,000, offering authors half the profits from book sales as opposed to 10-15 % of hardcover price and selling in books on fixed sale rather than sale-and-return.

An article in Media and Marketing points out that cutting back on advances isn’t the only strategy. While accepting that this is “the worst economic crisis to hit the United States in decades”, it notes that some publishers are following the “blockbuster strategy – a common approach among movie studios, television-production companies and music labels” of buying very few books but ones similar to recent bestsellers and for large advances. This doesn’t spread your risk but it can be a clever way of marshalling editorial, sales and publicity resources; for example, Grand Central Publishing, part of Hachette, generated 80% of its sales and an even larger share of its profits from just 20% of its titles in 2006. It doesn’t always work but it is much easier to make money from three big successes out of a dozen focused throws than from hundreds of commissions which may not have much marketing spend behind them. It also sends out signals to agents that the publisher is still in the market to spend and shouldn’t be taken off the submission list for ‘big’ projects and keeps staff happy that they are still in the publishing mainstream.

Book retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble want to see evidence that a book is worthy of their scarce resources. They like nothing better than to know that a book publisher has made a significant push for a title and is planning an extensive marketing campaign. In most media markets, support from the biggest retailers is decisive. A significant share of books is bought on impulse so significant shelf space and room on display tables are particularly important….Media companies’ hit-focussed marketing did not emerge in a vacuum. It reflects how consumers make choices. The truth is that consumers prefer blockbusters. Because they are inherently social, people find value in reading the same books and watching the same movies that others do.

The article notes that some blockbusters don’t pay off and some bestsellers emerge from nowhere but blockbuster strategies in the long run “beat the alternative of more balanced investment strategies.”

A piece in the New York Observer on the recovery of Bloomsbury USA after various staff changes last year illustrates how the economic downturn is helping mid-size publishers. As advances fall, lists are cut and the large publishers concentrate on their blockbuster strategies , publishers such Bloomsbury are now being offered and buying books which would previously gone to the conglomerates and I’m certainly finding that I’m selling more books now to small and medium sized publishers .

Jason Epstein, for many years editorial director of Random House , the man who introduced the trade paperback format and later co-founded the New York Review of Books makes some interesting points in his blog ‘A Autopsy of the Book Business’:

The business as it exists cannot survive, but in the miraculous way such things happen, a shining future is at hand. The 500-year-old Gutenberg system in which copy is delivered to a printer who ships inventory to a publisher’s warehouse from which it is consigned to bookshops is being displaced by the combined impact of digitization and the Internet, whose vast implications for the existing supply chain have yet to be fully exploited or perhaps grasped by today’s industry. In theory, every book ever published in whatever language can now be stored and delivered in digital form as cheaply and quickly as e-mail to be downloaded onto a variety of devices from dedicated readers, to more versatile handheld devices and to free standing machines that quickly and cheaply print and bind a selected title on demand wherever electricity and Internet connectivity exist. (I am involved in the development and exploitation of such a device called the Espresso Book Machine.) Authors’ complete works may be downloaded practically anywhere on Earth from appropriate websites, their property protected and royalties conveyed by secure software.

Four different articles on the state of the book trade and how it is changing. What do you think? Why not post a comment below.

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Andrew Lownie

Andrew Lownie was born in 1961 and was educated in Britain and America. He read history at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he was President of the Union. He went on to gain an MSc at Edinburgh University and spend a year at the College of Law in London. After a period as a bookseller and jour...More about Andrew Lownie