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Book Trade – No one has to visit your bookshop today to buy a book

August 12, 2014 Leave a comment

The seminars at London Book Fair are often tucked away in an obscure location but are worth seeking out. Perusing this year’s programme, I noted the ‘International Retail Seminar: The Bookshop of the Future’. Sure enough, the room was tortuous to find and when I did so, it was absolutely packed with booksellers … from Sweden. Then I caught the beaming face of Dave Lock from Manna Christian Centre, Streatham across the room – and relaxed!

London Book Fair 2014

Ably chaired by Philip Jones, the insightful editor of The Bookseller, three retailers from Europe, Asia and the USA shared their thoughts of the physical bookshop of the future. This was a fascinating session; wide in scope and exceptionally positive in its view of the sustainability of bookselling. The session explored the current rebirth of the bookshop. It underlined clearly that physical bookshops continue to have a future. Viability remains possible. This positivity obviously comes with caveats. The ‘shopping experience’ model as advanced by these three speakers is unlike much of what we know today. Changing the way we have always operated is a given, as customers will no longer put up with either mediocre service nor second-rate shops.

Sion Hamilton, Retail Operations Manager of Foyle’s London, spoke of his work in delivering one of Europe’s largest and newest bookshops, which opened on Charing Cross Road in June 2014 (pic below). He highlighted the importance of making physical space work for your business and of the imperative to learn from the customer. Hamilton stated that providing storewide public WiFi is a growing customer requirement. Without it, they will go elsewhere.

Foyles Charing Cross 2014

Hiroshi Sogo is Director of Kinokuniya Bookstores Ltd, started in Japan in 1927 and with shops now across Asia and the UAE. He commenced by saying ‘real bookshops still exist‘, stressing that establishing viable bookstores remains eminently do-able. The key to Kinokuniya’s success is ‘events, events, events’. For Sogo, ‘Big Data’ alone is not enough. Human interaction remains at the heart of the business: In-store hospitality, politeness and customer care are a must.

My top ‘take-away’ of the day came from Steve Bercu, President of the American Booksellers Association and owner of the Book People in Austen, Texas. His photo-session was an eye-opener; a testimony to an amazing business full of extraordinary energy and remarkable innovation; in short, Bookshop Theatre. Events, festivals, school fairs and birthday parties all help to provide the opportunity to extend the brand and grow the business. Interestingly, he maintains that store blogs should be used to promote books, not the company.

Buried within Bercu’s presentation, given at breakneck speed, was this one telling but vital truth, ‘No one has to visit your bookshop to buy a book today’. We have to earn that custom.

Ask yourself – Why should anyone decide to visit me today?

This article was written in early June for publication in Together Magazine (July to August 2014).

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Book Trade: Literacy matters – and Libraries matter too

June 4, 2014 1 comment

Libraries are once again in the news, and not for the most encouraging of reasons. Closures, cuts and low staff morale seem to be the order of the day. Austerity has taken its toll. In that sense, libraries and bookshops have much in common. Both are fighting for the attention of the reading public, both are under pressure, feeling under-appreciated and threatened in a fast-paced and increasingly digital reading environment.

Closure statistics are salutary. 100 libraries are slated for closure this year, plus 200-300 others to be taken over by volunteers, with the inevitable loss of a professional service. One library campaigner was reported in The Bookseller in February as saying, ‘We are in a state of emergency’. Local authorities will see cuts to their budget this year of 2.9%. One library assistant from British Columbia posted, ‘Cutting libraries during a recession is like cutting hospitals during a plague’. That quote obviously resonated as it’s now all over the Internet.

The authoritative Public Library News website states that, since April 2013, 489 libraries (including 81 mobile libraries) have been closed, or are likely to be closed or have already been passed over to volunteers. This disturbing figure is almost 12% of the total library estate of approximately 4,134 libraries around the country. It is just possible that local campaigning may halt a small number of these closures.

Yet this is not the whole story. There is another aspect to this particular soundtrack. The fight back has started. Central government is being forced to listen to a growing chorus of concern. The many thousands of employed librarians and their libraries are an irreplaceable national treasure. Most agree that libraries are vital centres for literature and reading. Libraries – along with most well run bookshops – emphatically have a future, albeit one that may be somewhat different from that which has gone before.

In September 2013, against these current trends, Birmingham City Council opened their flagship 31,000 sq. feet, 10-floor ‘Library of Birmingham’; one of the largest libraries in the world, and built at a cost of £189m. This library houses over one million books, the Quaker Cadbury family’s ‘Bournville Village Trust Archive’, and one of the two most important Shakespeare collections in the world. Manchester and Liverpool have also opened revamped libraries very recently, both projects costing many millions of pounds.

Birmingham library pic

What are the actual facts about libraries in the UK today?

  • There are 4,134 public libraries in the UK (including mobiles)
  • 40 new libraries opened in 2012 and 2013
  • There are 288 million visits to public libraries each year
  • This represents 4,522 visits per 1,000 of the population
  • There are 42,914 computer terminals in libraries, all with library catalogue and public internet access
  • Public libraries lend 262.7 million books a year
  • This breaks down into: 91.6 million children’s books; 116 million adult fiction; 54.6 million adult non-fiction
  • There are 10.3 million active borrowers

(Source: The Reading Agency – accessed 20 March 2014)

The Bookseller noted in a recent editorial, ‘there were 10 times as many library visits last year as there were votes cast at the last General Election!’ These statistics are impressive. Closures are obviously a real concern but these numbers are evidence of very considerable traffic flow in and out of the public library service every day.

The reinvention of the public library – as with the local bookshop – is underway. The coalition government has just reconvened the Sieghart Commission (chaired by a Publisher) to report independently on the English library service, and report back to Parliament later this year. Its remit is to investigate how our public libraries should adapt for 21st century use. The importance of this commission is that its members are widely respected across all parts of our industry. This same group published a report on E-lending via libraries last year; the conclusions of which have been broadly supported, although the Booksellers Association has since expressed well-argued concerns and is requesting certain safeguards for bookshops. One of the newer members of the commission, Luke Johnson, suggests that future library services may well include computer training, childcare and career advice. However, the core activity of promoting literacy and reading must surely continue.

Anyway, why am I writing about libraries in an esteemed journal dedicated to retailing and publishing? Well, for one thing, we each share a common vocation and the deep conviction that books are vital to the health of society, and need to be made available as widely as possible. Speak to anyone, and most will be able to recall their own childhood library. I visited my own local library in the Cotswolds on a weekly basis, taking out a pile of books every time. I came to know exactly what was on each of the shelves, and I was given special dispensation to take out more books than was normally allowed! There is no way that my parents could have supported my reading habit financially were it not for this library. As I write, in my mind’s eye, the whereabouts of those books and layout of the shelves remain a clear memory. My two-year-old grandson has taken up the mantle, delighting in a large pile of children’s picture books on a regular basis. I too have discovered the capers of Elmer the Elephant.

We should all care about the future fate of our local libraries. The library continues to form part of that vital chain in introducing books and learning to future readers. In other words, the future customers of all good bookshops! We have tended to take our libraries for granted. I realise that there are those who see them as an anachronism in an age of the god, Amazon. Governments dislike the expense. The 152 separate local authorities responsible for the UK’s library estate are caught between ‘a rock and a hard place’ in trying to balance their books, so the easiest option is their closure. This is short-termism at its very worse.

Thankfully, councils have a statutory duty under a 1964 Act of Parliament to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’ for their local communities. Anyone living in the UK is legally entitled to borrow a book free-of-charge from the public library. Oddly, whilst prisons have the same duty to provide a prison library, this is not the case for schools.

We sometimes fail to realise that for some people, books remain expensive, particularly for the vociferous reader. Affordability of books remains a real issue, especially for young families and other sections of society. Not everyone has sufficient disposable income to spend on books. Why then are we closing so many libraries in the UK and removing this hard won social resource? Like bookshops, once they are gone, it’s next to impossible to bring them back again. Does anyone actually care? Well, yes – many people do, and the Internet is full of campaigning websites indicating significant grass-roots support around the country.

Among these websites are:

www.publiclibrariesnews.com

www.readingagency.org.uk/news      Click on ‘library facts’

www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk

One of the more concerning aspects of this unfolding story is the sheer loss of library staff from the profession. Figures collated by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show that employed staff numbers dropped 6.8% in the year 2012-13 to 20,302 professionals. Yet library volunteers in the same period shot up 45% to 33,808. For a vital public service this represents a double whammy: the closure of library buildings, and the loss of books and professional staff. The six million dollar question within the profession is whether volunteers are really in any position to run an efficient library service? That particular jury will remain out for some while yet. Readers of this magazine will keep these closures and redundancies in their prayers, especially as many Christians work within the library world. Their profession is hurting in much the same way as in the publishing and retailing world, with the attendant impact of uncertainty and unsettledness on so many families.

I remain as passionate about the future of libraries as I do the future of bookshops. I fully expect both to remain part of our literary landscape. This is one reason why I am involved with Speaking Volumes, a growing charity that exists ‘to help libraries stock good-quality Christian books for all readers to enjoy’.  We work with public libraries, and also libraries in schools, prisons, hospices, playgroups and churches – anywhere, in fact, that books are lent or made available to a wide readership, and we assist by providing 50% of the full price of the books and DVDs.

In April, the ‘Librarians’ Christian Fellowship’, recently re-branded as ‘Christians in Library and Information Services’ (CLIS), appointed me as their next President. I am the first non-Librarian to hold this post, so feel something of a fraud! No matter, I’m a bookman at heart and anyway, I’d always harboured an ambition (unfulfilled) to train as a librarian.

This appointment signals CLIS’s desire to bring those of us involved in books – whether authors, booksellers, librarians or publishers – closer together. To quote ‘The Christian Librarian’ journal, this change of name:

‘Signals to the wider professional world that CLIS is responding to changing times; to the way jobs and work places may be nothing like the work patterns and careers of the past. We have come to this point out of a deep conviction about our calling as a Christian voice in an increasingly secular world’.

This is absolutely a platform upon which I am proud to stand.

This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2014).

Book Trade – Booksellers Association Conference 2013

September 25, 2013 1 comment

Here’s a flavour of the delegate sessions (lifted from my Tweet stream) at last week-end’s very positive Booksellers Association annual conference held over 24 hours at Warwick University, near Coventry, England.

Sunday 22nd September

  • Heading to #BA13 Warwick this w/e. Should be good fun, representing #CLC Bookshops. Trade is on top form after success of @booksaremybag
  • So warm. Like a summer’s day here in Warwick. Actually l think we’re probably nearer Coventry. Good to catch up with old friends. #BA13
  • Great start to #BA13. Warwick is almost tropical. Excellent Bookseller debates earlier: Thx @unicorntreebks @storytellersinc & Andy Rossiter
  • #BA13 ‘Selling’: three fast-paced practical cameos – Effective selling online, Maximising Christmas sales, Promoting books to schools

BA Conference 2013

Monday 23rd September

  • #BA13 underway in Warwick. 250 delegates in conference. Sense of positive energy palpable this a.m. @booksaremybag judged a big success
  • #BA13 68% of people prefer to discover books in physical shops. Discoverability is key. Need to place emphasis on physical environment
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Shop environment – more sofas, cafe/coffee/wine, singles night, in-store book clubs. Employ best people you can
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Shop loyalty is created through having good staff. Important to have an ability to sell without hassling customer
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Amazon is not going away! If you can’t beat them … digital interaction and information gathering is vital in-store
  • #BA13 James Lowther: Keep @booksaremybag going. Use your shop, your window, your counter. Use big bold messages. Not end of the campaign
  • #BA13 Neil Best/Waterstones: Your brand can be defined as what your customers think of your bookshop. It’s their experience of YOU
  • #BA13 Neil Best/Waterstones: Best search engine is you, the bookseller. Curation of stock should be an expression of bookselling skills
  • #BA13 Jo Henry/Nielsen:Data suggests that ebook sales are plateauing (consensus emerging). 7 in 8 books still bought in physical format
  • #BA13 Joe Henry/Nielsen: Why people buy from bookshops? Strong evidence of impulse purchase. 1 in 4 bookshop purchases are pure impulse
  • #BA13 Jo Henry/Neilsen: Bookshop strengths: curated stock selection, customer ability to browse stock. Note scepticism of online reviews
  • #BA13 Miriam Robinson/Foyles: Onus should be on bookshops that empower customers to do discovery for themselves, not spoon-fed reviews
  • #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: 60 shops across Ireland. Books equal 50% of turnover. Challenges of past 5 years; economic + trade volatility
  • #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: Changing the face of Irish bookselling. New shop design implemented in Cork and Belfast. New bright colour scheme
  • #BA13 Keith Butler/Easons: In an Internet age, range is no longer the key selling point in-store, it’s now all about relevance to the customer
  • #BA13 Bill Bryson closing keynote: It’s a great chance for me to say thank you to booksellers. Keep going and don’t quit!
  • #BA13 Thanks to @BAbooksellers for an excellent conference; full of warmth, great information & practical advice

Bill Bryson closing #BA13

To sum up – as I posted on Facebook yesterday:

‘Just back from a brilliant Booksellers Association conference in Warwick over the weekend. Good to spend time with Melanie Carroll and John Keble amongst others. Good energy and a positive buzz, much of it down to the very good ‘Books are my Bag’ Saatchi campaign. People are now talking about AA (after Amazon) i.e. in the the sense that Amazon, digital and ebooks are a reality and here to stay so we need to get over it, move on and go for the sales that are still there for those who are adapting in order to do business in the new environment. It’s now very clear that whilst Amazon is not going away, neither is the independent bookshop sector. The evidence of the weekend is that we are a hardy lot! I agree with Melanie that it would be good to see more of our Christian colleagues at the event. Sometimes our niche works against us and makes us look like we inhabit a religious ghetto. I learnt a lot and was very glad I attended’. 

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: Pressing Issues facing the Trade: The PA Year Book 2011

May 8, 2012 1 comment

Last week the deputy editor of The Bookseller described the Book Trade asBystanders watching a race that began before we were ready’. Is this apt or just plain wrong? He was writing about the global growth of the e-reading market where the statistics continue to astonish and possibly frighten us in equal measure.

The Bookseller postulated in its leader that same week; 50/50 digital-print parity could be with us by 2020. It also posed the chilling question, ‘How many Indie and chain bookshops will remain’

Why such gloom? Well, the Publishers Association had released its 2011 Yearbook, containing all the sales value and unit numbers for last year. You’ll need a strong stomach to read this as for most printers, publishers and terrestrial booksellers it makes for grim consumption. On the other side of that particular coin; for self-published authors and for publishers in the eBook market, particularly in Romance or Horror, the future looks very bright indeed. In 2011, digital accounted for a sharply growing 8% of the book market.

Physical book sales declined 4.8% to £2.9bn but when you factor in the growth of the e-Market (up 55%) at £243m, the overall decline falls to 1.9% (at £3.2bn). This represents the first drop in total book sales in more than three years – not the best place for the industry to find itself. When you take inflation into account, this fall is actually much more serious. We are going backwards, not forwards. Even export sales fell, declining by 3% (£1.2bn). It’s worth noting that exports remain almost a third of all UK invoiced sales.

Sales of print fiction – the largest category of print falling victim to the e-Reader – dropped over 10% in the year, a loss of £57m. e-Fiction popularity grew strongly to £70m but by not quite enough to cover the losses in print. Non-Fiction and Reference also fell (down 4%) but these categories were not compensated at all by additional digital sales. In fact, all print categories declined apart from some growth in School and ELT sales. The value of Children’s book sales fell by 8% on the previous year (post-Twilight).

According to the commentators these are now the pressing issues facing our trade:

(1) The speed of digital migration, (2) the vexed question of ‘discoverability’ (and the related importance of browsing in a physical shop), (3) whether DRM should or should not be embraced by the industry (with strong views either way), (4) the growing dominance of Amazon and (5) the steeply falling price of eBooks online, thus devaluing books in general.

Oh, and it’s raining as well!

Note – the PA figures as published here often differ from the Nielsen BookScan figures for the UK book market. Both are correct but each takes slightly differing approaches when compiling the data – apples and pears spring to mind.

Book Trade; eBook debate – a view from Singapore

April 6, 2011 2 comments

Next week the global book trade will gather in London for the annual London Book Fair. Once again, the ongoing eBook debate will dominate both the trade agenda and the fair programme.

The burning question continues to be, amongst all the hype and speculation, what will happen to physical book sales in the light of the widely predicted digital onslaught? Opinions range wildly from ‘Do nothing; we’ve seen this kind of thing before’ to ‘Get out quickly whilst you are still able to salvage something of value’. Is this truly a ‘Caxton’ moment or will life carry on much as it has before?

 As I write this, I’m in Singapore, probably one of the most wired societies on the planet. The answer to the question here seems to be that there is no discernable impact yet on sales, which to my mind is mildly surprising. Even the mighty Amazon has only a limited Asian presence (although there is an Amazon Japanese site). Singaporeans, if they use Amazon, log on via the UK or American sites.

I met with a significant general market distributor and they reported seeing no real impact on their business. Even Borders troubles here are put down to poor chain management rather than sales being siphoned away through digital stealth. I therefore conclude that, as in the rest of the world, no-one really knows quite what is going on although it seems clear to most in the wider trade that something pretty significant is beginning to stir in the undergrowth!

What is abundantly clear, however, is that all sections of the trade have their own particular fears and are watching the developing situation incredibly closely, leading to some sharply divergent views; 

  • Retailers – seeing their business disappearing online and wonder where it’s all going to end
  • Publishers – scrambling to find a viable rights and pricing model as authors potentially disappear from view hand-in-hand with online retailers
  • Distributors – wondering if they will be cut out of the action all together
  • Authors – either upset by inferior internet royalties or sensing new opportunities to cut out the publisher and self-publish via the big internet players such as Amazon

Back in February, the International Publishers Association (IPA) asked its various members for their views on their own embryonic eBook markets. These findings, widely reported at the time in the trade press, are worth summarising;

  •  The proliferation of smart phones and tablet computers (such as the iPad) is radically fuelling the eBook market as millions of these devices cry out for content
  • Amazon.com’s eBook sales were recently reported as surpassing their print unit sales
  • Most reference and academic journal publishing has already largely migrated online
  • USA newspapers have started to incorporate eBook sales into their regular bestseller lists
  • The UK e-market is around 18 months behind the USA – but the gap is fast shrinking
  • Amazon, Apple and Google exhibit every sign of becoming ePublishing competitors!
  • The existing copyright and territorial rights are not always relevant to the digital environment
  • The new model significantly challenges territorial marketing as eBooks are effectively global in reach
  • The proliferation and ease of digital piracy and file sharing is a major worry particularly in certain emerging markets
  • Price remains contentious as consumers expect digital texts to cost less than the printed work
  • Savings in print and distribution are largely offset by technology costs, new services and VAT
  • Surprise, surprise! French publishers are lobbying to extend fixed retail print prices to all eBooks sold in France!

The overall conclusion to all this seems to be that, yes, this market is changing faster than we realise but, in the words of IPA, ‘the day eBooks will outsell print is not imminent’.

No doubt the debate – and the opinions – will continue for a while yet.

Book Trade; eBooks – Leading Publishers weigh up the Digital Impact

January 8, 2011 1 comment

Having castigated The Bookseller recently for poor journalism, I draw your attention to a superb and in-depth reporting piece looking at what life for the trade could look like in 2011. Bringing together the opinions of a wide range of UK book industry leaders it looks at, amongst other things, the likely impact of digital sales on the industry.

You can read the full article here but I want to highlight the main points of interest to High Street book retailers as they face the imminent digital challenge.

Amongst the key points of the article;

  • Industry chiefs unanimously earmark digital as a key area of opportunity in 2011
  • Digital sales have reached a tipping point and will grow further next year
  • Those booksellers not getting a good share of e-book sales are going to find business tougher than ever
  • The main challenge lies in supporting retailers in an uncertain economic environment
  • However, nearly 95% of all books sold in the UK in 2011 will still be in print format

To my mind, here is the killer statement; ‘Growing e-book sales could lead to the Total UK Consumer Market being negative in 2011 as they hit 7% of the adult trade market’.  

Print may no longer be capable of ongoing growth. Fiction – in particular – and mass market publishing in general, is highly susceptible to this drift. How are High Street shops to deal with this change in their market? If print is dropping away, what steps do they need to take to get a bigger slice of the digital cake? If the High Street trade is not careful, it will be the publishers and not retailers that will benefit from an inevitable sales shift to digital.

Gardners’ respected commercial director, Bob Jackson, is quoted in the article as saying:

I think that the retailers who continue to focus on customer service and manage overheads will be doing the best they can. They need to stay very consumer focused. It won’t get any easier in 2011. We launched our digital service three years ago, so it’s available to every single retailer. I think the challenge might come more as retailers using e-books as part of their retail offering, I’m sure they [retailers] can be as creative as they have been to date. That’s the challenge’.

Faber Publisher, Stephen Page, said:

‘The big question is how retailers fared at the end of last year and how they will fare in 2011. Looking around the world I can see the retail environment changing and that change is not complete. Retailers have to adapt to a world with very powerful mass market retailing and online retailing and now there is a digital component too. Look at the REDGroup in Australia, Borders in the US. Here we have had a narrowing of the specialist chains to Waterstone’s and W H Smith, and it’s a question of how they adapt. Waterstone’s over the last nine months have been pursuing quite a different tack and it’s a question of where that gets them to. We all want a healthy retail environment. In 2011 we will see a hardening of the e-book market and a lot of people becoming habitual about reading electronically. We will catch up quickly with America – I’m estimating e-books will be 3-5% of the [UK] market in a year’s time’.

The long-serving chief executive of the Booksellers Association, Tim Godfray, stated:

‘This Millennium has seen a huge amount of change in the way books are sold and in the formats available. As ever, booksellers have shown great resilience and those who have adapted have survived. As we enter a new decade, only further change is on the cards. We face in particular three challenges. First, the Government cutbacks and the state of the economy; secondly, the digital economy; thirdly, the consumer having fewer leisure pounds to spend. But with challenges, there are opportunities. The tipping point concerning e-books has been reached and digital content is coming of age. The popularity of e-book readers demonstrates this. The selling of digital content is a threat to traditional booksellers, but it is also an opportunity. A lot has been written about the death of the printed book and the bookshop. Not far short of 95% of all books sold in the UK in 2011 will be in print format and booksellers will develop their offers, customer service and specialisations’.

 Victoria Barnsley, chief executive of HarperCollins is quoted as saying:

Digital developments continue to present both the challenges and the opportunities for our industry. E-book sales more than trebled over the Christmas period as people rushed to buy e-books for their new gift devices. And, unlike some, I really do think the growth of the digital market is a huge opportunity for bookshops—not only to provide a unique and personal service to book lovers, which is hard to replicate online, but to capitalise on the new readers these devices are creating. …  finally, I believe that we should all fight vigorously to support and encourage a broad range of retail options on the high street and online which hugely benefits consumers, retailers and our own industry’.

Well done, The Bookseller – some fascinating opinions and really insightful reporting. I cannot help but think that we continue to be in very uncertain territory with even the most able minds in the trade pretty unclear as to how that future may turn out.

However, I am beginning to think that the tipping point for eBooks is beginning to tilt – albeit slowly but surely.

POSTSCRIPT – If all this gloom and uncertainty is getting you down then read these recent comments by the Editor of The Irish Times;

‘Yet there are opportunities for the retail sector. Barnes and Noble in the US have really got on top of things with their own device and have encouraged their customers to become digital readers. They’re looking at sales of about $400 million (€308 million) for digital content in a 12-month period – and that’s impressive’.  He believes, though, that there will always be a market for print books. ‘It might not be huge. It might be down to 30 per cent of the market in 10 years’ time, but there will still be a demand for physical books and the browsing experience that you can’t get from Amazon or the Book Depository’.

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