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Book Trade – Trends in the Wider Market

April 13, 2013 2 comments

Canadian retail blogger, PaulThinkingOutLoud was upset recently by one publisher’s website and its aggressive discounting policy. Writing in his blog – which is well worth following – he saw this as

 ‘Another example of a publisher or distributor bypassing the brick and mortar stores. Although some of this might be legitimate overstock inventory, it raises the expectation of consumers for this level of discounting to be normative, which adds to the discouragement of already battered retailers’.

In another post, Paul writes movingly of competing emotions during the closure of one of his stores. He ends with an appeal to press on towards the goal of in-store ministry.

Do you feel battered by falling sales or emboldened by spiritual opportunity? Yes, Christian bookshops continue to close, footfall is in decline, competition from online is savage and at best support from churches is patchy. Yet we are not always that well informed of current trends in the wider publishing scene. In the same way as what happens in the USA often affects the UK, the same is true of events in the general market impacting the Christian trade.

Wesley Owen Birmingham

Generally speaking, our grasp of the financials on both ‘sides’ is often lacking. Retailers operate on lower margins with high fixed costs (upward only rents, rising business rates – up 2.6% again in April) whereas publishing in the main has higher margins and a far more flexible cost base. Clearly there are worries on all sides and as publishers face lower physical sales, print-runs continue to fall making the viability of mid-list titles ever more tenuous. Many publishers struggle with storing high levels of physical stock, much of which will eventually be written-down. Ironically for publishers, digitalisation represents yet more cost and a growing overhead; this, coupled with falling average cover prices (ebooks sell at half the average price of a paperback: £3.21 v. £6.31).

Our industry is a torrid place. The physical consumer book market declined by 4.6% in value in 2012, with fiction down 4.5% and non-fiction down 6.3% – only Children’s books held steady. The value of print sales slumped by £74m last year. (It could be worse – in Australia their market fell 6.3%). The marketplace churns violently in a volatile landscape; over 200 libraries were closed between 2011/12 and in another sign of turbulence, Cambridge University Press ceased print production on their Cambridge site after 400 years.

Yet 2012 saw the continued growth in digital publishing, social media marketing and self-publishing. Hive became established. Amazon’s Kindle grew faster than ever and a number of other e-readers, notably Nook, Kobo, and Nexus gathered momentum. Controversially Waterstones began to sell Amazon’s Kindle, recognising that they had neither the time nor money to develop their own platform. The Fifty Shades publishing phenomenon came out of nowhere ending the year with sales of £47.3m.

The market for ebooks was revised upwards to £300m late last year and continues to grow, albeit more slowly. Major publishers report e-sales of between 8% and 17% of overall revenue. In November, the ebook agency price probe in the USA and the EC brought a chill to the major houses as they battled against what felt like unfair external pressures. Now ebooks sell for an unsustainable 20p (a marketing idiocy pioneered by Sony) and most slots in the Kindle top 20 are populated by cheap ebooks. Nielsen data suggest that there are 7m UK ebook adopters, with heaviest use amongst ages 35-44, lowest in the under 20’s. However, the BBC reports that just as many UK adults, 7.4m or 15% of the population have yet to access the Internet.

Bookshop closures continue apace with The Booksellers Association figures documenting ongoing decline: down to 1,028 shops (2012) from 1,535 in 2005 – conversely Children’s bookshops are thriving with more opening this year. In the USA, the one surviving major bookstore chain, Barnes and Noble announced after Christmas that they expect to slim down store numbers by a third. B&N have 689 stores currently with 190-240 of these slated to close over the next decade. It’s a widely held view that the holy grail of ‘Discoverability’ is best achieved in a physical bookshop; browsing activity is their USP.

The debate over the future of our libraries is equally as fierce. The UK Government’s Sieghart ebook library lending review is yet to report but author, Terry Deary said recently: ‘Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in the electronic age’. How to win friends! It’s worth noting that the PLR on printed books from library lending is more than £6m paid out to 23,000 authors. The debate remains live as people continue to ask if digital will trounce the physical book or whether in due course it will all settle down benignly?

There’s a lot of anger amongst booksellers towards the perceived lack of a level playing field. Writing in The Bookseller, Charles Tongue of the Stroud Bookshop said, ‘I believe Publishers are blindly colluding with Amazon and the result will be the destruction of High street retailing’. He was widely applauded.

I like Foyle’s of London advertising slogan; This Bookshop Will Change Your Life – no ambiguity there! Earlier this year, Sam Husain, CEO of Foyle’s sent an open letter to publishers arguing the need for better terms (an average of 60%) and increased support (promotional stock on consignment). He stated that the current bookshop model is broken, needing a complete rethink. This at a time as Foyle’s announced eight redundancies. Bravely, Foyle’s and The Bookseller have since conducted a two-day ‘Re-imagining the Future Bookshop’ workshop, held in London, allowing the trade to collaborate on what the bookshop of the future might look like. 

WH Smith continue to do a sterling job in showcasing books but even their sales fall year on year; down 7% to the end of August 2012 and down a further 6% in the 20 weeks to mid-January 2013. Another indication of the parlous state of the High Street trade is wholesaler Gardners sales results which dropped 3% to the end of February last year. Blackwell’s did improve their results last year but remain loss making.

Waterstones is far from being out of the woods with the release of poor results (admittedly pre-James Daunt) showing a £37.3m loss. I wish Waterstones well because if their 290 branches were to disappear from the High Street then it would be a very serious matter, and I might add, particularly for publishers. However, I’m encouraged for two reasons: anecdotally, people seem very warm towards the ‘W’ brand and some are switching their buying away from the mighty ‘A’. The question is, will it be enough? Waterstones iconic branding campaign last autumn was well received and this year it has plans for the refurbishment of another 60 shops.

Waterstones Guildford

My other reason is that when I visit Waterstones, they generally prove to be busy places and people are markedly buying books. It’s just a shame that Waterstones do not ‘do’ Christianity better and with more visibility. On a positive note, I welcome the announcement by Waterstones of the launch of its staff-training academy and Certificate in Bookselling (accredited by the University of Derby); surely a vote of confidence in its own future by a visionary book chain?

Maybe I’m pipe dreaming? After all, Amazon had overall sales in the UK in 2011 of £2.91 billion (on which they famously paid £416m UK tax). They reported Q4 worldwide revenue growth of 22% to £13bn last Christmas! Latest innovations include customer collection lockers in railway stations and newsagents. This is an immensely powerful online juggernaut and our small trade faces a very significant challenge indeed!

Jessops Guildford

Yet I dare to believe that localism can prevail, customer attitudes can change and that people continue to care about their local shops – you must just hope that I am right! The demise of retailers, Jessops and Blockbuster earlier this year followed by HMV going into administration shows just how tough conditions are. Incredibly, HMV was selling 27% of all CD’s and 38% of DVD’s at the time of its demise.

HMV Birmingham

I would echo Philip Downer’s (ex-Borders) comment from last year;

 ‘The old days of Borders and Ottakars will not return … Coffee, carrot cake, cards and an ebook offer are now essentials for Indies who want to stay in business and thrive for the future’

We have to give customers a reason to come to our shops. Why should they shop with you? I was recently handed a forward-dated 15% off voucher for a national (non-book) retailer. It worked. I visited the shop on the stated date, I used my voucher … and I bought far more than I had intended. In the Christian trade we must start thinking more creatively and connecting with customers in a very different way to the past.

CLC London

Church engagement is a hugely important topic that needs far greater attention and one to which we shall return in the next issue. Many shops find difficulty in communicating with ministers. An earlier church / retail compact has seemingly broken down as leaders shop around – usually online – driven by ‘best price’ owing to the Churches’ own financial constraints. Managers struggle to venture outside their own premises due to low staffing levels or sometimes, unwillingness. And yet, somehow, retailers have to get back in touch with their core customer base – the Churches.

The days of waiting for a church to contact you are long gone. It’s often a salutary task to record daily footfall and till data – but it may just serve as the severe jolt you need in order to take action?

This article was written in early March 2013 for Together Magazine (April – May 2013)

Book Trade – London Book Fair 2012: A Perspective

April 20, 2012 2 comments

I attended the London Book Fair at Earls Court this week; the first time in several years. I was left with several over-riding impressions.

The Fair remains the premier International Book Fair. It was busy – very busy – with 25,000 delegates, half from overseas, attracted by the 1,500 exhibitors from 57 countries. The Bookseller suggested that the USA DoJ ruling on the Agency Model (eBook pricing) had dampened the mood considerably for rights sales.

I am very much against this ruling as it simply hands yet more power to an already menacing monopoly. I applaud those Publishers who have decided to fight this rather simplistic ruling. Amazon has already done considerable damage to our High Streets, and not just to Bookselling. It’s quite foolish to view Amazon as a consumer champion.

China – this year’s Market Focus – with their visually stunning Fair Pavilion (designed by Yang Liu). The Market Focus logo was in the shape of a hand-fan as used by the Royal Family in China 1500 years ago. LBF reported that China had sent 1,200 people (including 50 authors) representing 180 publishers – quite a commitment! So why China? Well, English and Mandarin are the two dominant world languages and China is a vast country with a 1.3billion population speaking over 50 dialects. It’s projected to overtake the USA as the world’s largest economy within the next 20 years or so, and yet paradoxically it’s still 90th on the GDP index despite its recent spectacular economic growth.

The sheer size of the country with its many regional imbalances and huge social challenges is overseen by the pro-business centralised Government. For the Western creative industries, protection of Intellectual Property and Copyright remains the pressing issue. Good quality translation skills remain scarce.

There is the inevitable controversy over issues of censorship when judged by the ideals of liberal democracy. Indeed, the Fair’s impressive China and Europe Publishing Forum attracted a goodly number of silent placard waving protesters; ‘Free speech is not a crime’, ‘Stop literary persecution’. The London Evening Standard ran an interview this week with the Chinese author of Wild Swans in which she stated that, in her opinion, ‘Censorship in China is worse than it was 10 years ago’.

The Chinese Government oversees all media output through GAPP and it is this body which issues the requisite ISBN’s.  Since 1949, China has published around 34,000 titles of British books within China. Apparently, ¼ of all books imported into China are from the UK!  Through its 600+ Publishing Houses and with a workforce of nearly 57 thousand employees’, China has the largest publishing output in the world by volume (300,000 titles in 2009). It’s a mature and self-confident market set to generate revenues of $9.5billion in 2012. China is poised to take over from the USA in levels of scientific journal publishing.

There are 167,000 bookshops across China, with some state-of-the-art seven-story bookshops in the largest cities. The number of bricks and mortar shops is growing by almost 5% per year! The state-run chain, Xinhua (new China) has 6,483 outlets.

Why is this of any interest to us Brits? Because there are more people learning English in China than anywhere else in the world and more English speakers in China than in the rest of the English speaking world. Language learning is paramount. For publishers, this obviously represents a huge market and a pressing opportunity. There is a very attractive market for educational and English language publishers!

I was very struck by Pearson’s almost evangelical mantra, ‘Not just touching people, but transforming lives through learning’. 

Islam – I was forcibly struck by the number of large and impressive Islamic publishing stands at LBF. These were in stark contrast to the mainly small booths of the Christian publishers, aside from the usual welcome presence of Lion Hudson PLC.  Islam clearly has plenty of financial backing, is investing heavily in literature and is clearly committed to book distribution in a way that some Christians seem to have forgotten.

Print still dominates, at around 80-85% of the UK market and much smaller elsewhere in the world. We should keep the eBook ‘hype’ in perspective. The digital presence at the Fair was actually quite small, tucked away in one smallish zone. Interestingly, KOBO eReaders have said that 10% of their eBook sales are now for self-published authors. In China, authors are uploading self-published works in instalments, books which are then picked up by publishers and eventually making their way into bookshops; the reverse of our model in the West!

UK Publishers do increasingly view their role as ‘Content Providers’ delivered via various platforms but print currently continues to dominate their activity.

LBF 2012. Quite an event, and yet again, another reminder of just how quickly our world is changing. The tide of globalisation and digitalisation continues to alter the way we all do business yet the basic desire to read remains.

In his summing up, Lord Powell of Bayswater said, ‘The English language is the highway to bring the world to China’. I suspect that China is actually finding her way to the rest of the world!

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