'Print books are more like decorations': A #FutureChat recap

Image - iStockphoto: StockerNumber2
Image – iStockphoto: StockerNumber2

Could ebooks and print be friends instead of enemies? Having heralded The noise and fury— where he wrote, “Booksellers are back! The print book is on the rise! The ebook is dead!” — The Bookseller editor Philip Jones then returned Friday with classic irony in Surprise, surprise:

Defying what we sometimes read in the wider media, the ebook sector (from what we can tell from the figures supplied by the major publishers) continued to outperform print, with average growth of 15%. If the experience in the US is an accurate pointer, it will be the last year we can say this, but with a market size of around £350 million, this fledgling is now dug in. In fact, across print and digital it is likely that the book market grew in 2014, as it did in 2012. Digital has worked for the book business.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

And in the walkup to our #FutureChat on Friday, we’d used the report made by Nielsen Book’s Jonathan Nowell at Digital Book World in New York, along with The Bookseller’scoverage to point out some interesting language in the debate. A few salient phrases:

Print and digital help the book market…the changing mix of what sells…the decline in print sales predates the ebook…

What we’re hearing comes not only from two different but similarly tracked markets — the US and UK — but also from a gradually proliferating set of viewpoints. (What? You mean publishing people don’t agree on something?) It’s just not as simple as some might have expected (or, ahem, wanted): All print isn’t being steam rolled by digital. And all sectors aren’t flowering in a print revival. No, as usual, publishing is more complicated than that. And it becomes a lot easier in the light of these reports and observations to understand why our choirs are antiphonal on these points.

  • If you’re in romance (that is to say if you’re in the genre, not in luv), then you think all the world has gone ebooking, baby. Digital shirtless men kissing e-beautiful women.
  • But if you’re in religion books, you’ve seen a 43-percent gain in print. And you keep your shirt on.

Jones has the positive take on this:

If I were to look for a theme from all this, I would say that publishing is better than what it was, informed by a closer understanding of what works in each channel—or as PRH UK boss Tom Weldon said last week, “greater visibility into what influences readers”—a rekindled relationship with booksellers and a more flexible approach to authors.

Jonathan Nowell
Jonathan Nowell

In other words, what we seem to be learning is that genre- and audience-specific approaches make more sense than ever because we’re looking at a market that walks one direction for one kind of work and another direction for another. Indeed, Jones is pointing out that in the UK, the biggest houses weren’t the ones with the biggest hits in 2014.

At 43.9% the Big Three’s share of Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer Market is at its lowest since records began (in 2001), with each of Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins declining faster than the overall print market (the latter only by a whisker). The big winner was Pan Macmillan—up 9.8%, a remarkable performance since it had no bestsellers in 2014’s overall Top 50 (published last week)—with Lonely Planet and Faber also performing creditably.

So while some are out in the street to welcome what they think is our warm-and-fuzzy return to paper, others are heading off to create new digital publishing houses.

And what Nowell, Jones, and the markets on both sides of the reading pond may be telling us is that everybody’s right. Or everybody’s wrong (it is Monday, after all).

The industry! the industry! loves nothing more than a good, hard, simplistic line to carry everyone into the cubicles each day. But the numbers just aren’t making it that easy. No, we’re going to have to slog it out through the Swamp of On the Other Hand. I recommend Campari in that flask.

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By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook: ‘Print books are more like decorations’: A #FutureChat recap

Read the full post at: TheBookseller.com/futurebook


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