By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
And Why Is the Industry Not Prioritizing Readership?I named our session “Tales of Two Markets: Publishing Journalists on UK and US Perspectives” and it fell in the London Book Fair Insights Seminar Programme series on the first afternoon of #LBF16, Tuesday (April 12).
“I just think we’re great writers and publishers over here” in the UK “and we like to award ourselves prizes…It’s highly consistent with our greatness.”Philip Jones on the number of book awards in the UK
In inviting Philip Jones and Andrew Albanese to join me, I stacked the deck entirely, admittedly, with the best reporters and commentators on the English-speaking industry we have working today.
Jones is Editor of The Bookseller, London’s medium of record for the UK industry and until recently, my own berth as Associate Editor of The FutureBook.
Albanese is Senior Writer and Features Editor for Publishers Weekly, heading that US-based outlet’s international coverage and logging as many miles as any of us on the world events stage in publishing.
What I wanted to know in arranging this panel for the Apex Room in the National Gallery at Olympia London on the 14th was what these two keen observers might see as the shared and differentiating points between the two lead markets, the US and UK, but also — as is unavoidable — what issues might be discerned that will be or already are impacting other publishing markets around the world.
Lead Issues in the Two Markets
Albanese said, “I would say right now the big thing we’re following most closely in the States is the balancing out of print and digital. Ebooks were charting such enormous growth for so many years. In 2007, the [Amazon] Kindle launched in America [and led to] triple-digit growth rates, and then went to single-digit growth rates this year and last. So this is ebooks’ sales growth in decline, really for the first time since the launch of the Kindle. At the same time, print is once again rising” — a point complicated, he noted by the rise in adult coloring books in print.
Is US industry consultant Mike Shatzkin correct, I asked Albanese, in his recent assessment that the coloring-book boom in the States is, in fact, largely driving the so-called “print resurgence” there?
“Well, I think there’s no question that coloring books are definitely having an impact, but I also think that print sales are at least stabilizing if not rising. I know some in the States look at coloring books as the end of civilization,” he said with a laugh.
“And who needs civilization?” I asked him.
“Well, I’m okay with people going into a bookstore for a coloring book…they have a look around and find some other things they might go away with.”
For the UK’s part, Jones said that he, too, sees the digital-print issue as still essential to the industry’s focus today, but with an adjustment about who’s obsessed with the topic.
“I agree with what Andrew’s saying,” Jones said, “I think the balance between digital and print is certainly obsessing the pundits. I’m not sure it’s obsessing the publishers. I think the publishers are generally obsessed with trying to find the right books and the best books for their relevant markets, that’s what they’re doing at the London Book Fair.
“I feel that in UK publishing, there’s a massive emphasis on finding tomorrow’s talent today. When I walk into publishing houses, I don’t find that they want to have conversations about ebooks or print books, particularly — some do, but most don’t. What they want to have conversations about are the bestseller charts. Which debut authors are doing well? Which imprints are launching or folding. Which trends are coming, too.
“I think publishers are very, very obsessed with publishing at the moment, including coloring books. I agree with Andrew that coloring books are a good thing and a sign of health in the market, in that people are producing nice printed book that people want to buy and can only really buy through high-street bookstores.”
I tried to throw Jones off his game, of course, by asking whether adult coloring books don’t substitute some sort of entertainment (or stress relief) function for reading, the stuff, surely, for which we most revere books. But he was having none of it.
“A third of the market is gifting, and that’s not about reading, either, that’s encouraging other people to read. Gifting a nice-looking product…I have absolutely no problem with books being used for purposes other than reading. One of the great things about books is that they do many things other than reading, other than telling stories.”
“I’m okay with people going into a bookstore for a coloring book…they have a look around and find some other things they might go away with.”Andrew Albanese on criticism of adult coloring books' popularity
Such as cookbooks, I volunteered. He agreed, that’s another example of the non-reading-based bookish product well worth having.
“More widely, I think it’s incredibly important that publishers and booksellers have product out there relative to what their consumers want, what people want to buy. The coloring book is one of the hot items of the year, as Harry Potter [books] were in the noughties, as Fifty Shades of Grey was at one point.”
Also on the question of coloring books and their market effect in the UK as compared to the US, Jones said that on his side of the Atlantic, “Through the Nielsen BookScan numbers, we’re seeing rises in almost all sectors and all categories, interestingly including fiction — fiction, which is the one category that has moved quickly and been well-adopted in terms of ebook sales: and yet we saw almost all categories of fiction sales rise in print in 2015. And the print market is up 10 percent in the first quarter of 2016” in the UK.
Jones also notes seeing a rise in print books in “non-traditional” sales settings such as historical-trust shops, museum stores, or clothing outlets such as Urban Outfitters. Something, he said, about “highly illustrated, beautifully produced, beautifully packaged” volumes in which the print format still simply reigns dominant.
Albanese agreed with Jones that the real emphasis for publishers is less on the issues debated around them than on the search for the most successful match of content to consumer interest.
If anything, Albanese said, “I think publishers are even more dependent” on finding the next major trend or blockbuster that answers readers’ interests, “as more and more midlist authors turn to self-publishing.”
What do the US and UK markets not understand well about each other?
When I asked this question, Albanese named two things:
- How libraries work. In this he pointed to the protracted struggle for survival that the UK’s libraries are going through with the BBC estimating that more than 8,000 UK library jobs have been lost in the past six years — while in the US, the library system is funded and engaged in a robust reinvention of itself as a network of community centers for creativity.
- Copyright. There have been a couple of decisions in the States, he said, that weren’t terribly concerning for publishers, while at the International Publishers Association congress at London Book Fair, we all learned that European publishers are extremely worried about the EU Commission’s initial approach proposals for copyright reform.
And to the same question — what issues are not understood well in one market about the other? — Jones named:
- Discounting. “I don’t think that in the US, there’s the same culture of heavy discounting of your premium products that we enjoy in the UK.”
Pricing, a Prime Concern
Jones’ apt discounting point led us to a discussion of pricing in general, and the effect in the States and to some degree in the UK of a “devaluation” — not a happy term for everyone, mind you — of books amid deeply lower prices than historically were the norm. Some of this dynamic, of course, has been led by the self-publishing community, many writers of which use extremely low prices (and free books) as one of only a few tools available for attracting readership.
“The over-production is a real issue…We either have to grow the market or we have to decrease the number of publications that we put into that market for the economics to rebalance.”Philip Jones
“I think the pricing of books is as much an issue” in importance and concern “as much as the balancing of digital and print.”
With precipitous declines in what writers can expect to make from their writing in both markets (per the Society of Authors in the UK and the Authors Guild in the US), the question for many comes down to how will authors make a living in an industry reduced to rock-bottom pricing in so many cases?
Jones pointed out that “in the States, we’re hearing that the heavy discounting” native to “the digital book market is also seeping into the print book market.”
Albanese agreed, and pointed out that this is not entirely new. He looked back to a time when a Stephen King release was sold at [big-box retailer) Costco in hardcover for less than the Kindle edition price of $9.99. “Price wars are not unusual in the print world, but the digital side of it is really having an effect.”
With agency pricing back in effect after the Department of Justice actions of years ago, Albanese said, it’s going to take a couple of years for us to get a good fix on where book prices will finally rest.
Awards, and the Ocean as Firewall
One of the most vexing issues for some of us is the lack of coordination and awareness on one side of the Atlantic about awards attention on the other. In introducing this issue, I brought up the case of Irish author Eimeer McBride, whose A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK, and yet was brought out in the US only many months later because, the Stateside publisher told me, they wanted time to develop its “American publicity.”
This is particularly annoying at times because the UK has a lot more high-visibility, market-impacting awards programs in place than the States does, and yet the US publishers aren’t always able to capitalize on such doings in the UK to help promote sales.
As I said on the panel at London Book Fair, we in the United States “could be following all these awards programs in the UK much better, moving the material back and forth much better, and — I think — raising both markets.”
“As I understand it,” Jones said, “it’s only the Man Booker Prize that translates into international sales. So the Baileys [formerly] Orange Prize, I don’t know whether that might have affected sales of Eimeer McBride’s book, which anyway was quite a difficult book to sell and work commercially. Didn’t do particularly well commercially in the UK,” he pointed out, despite the visibility of its success in the awards.
“I just think we’re great writers and publishers over here” in the UK, “and we like to award ourselves prizes,” Jones said — and with a look of blithe innocence on his face. “It’s highly consistent with our greatness.”
“I’m a former publisher, myself. And…the more [publishers] have to earn back from your advance, the harder they’re going to work to market your book.”Andrew Albanese
“More seriously,” he said, referring to what he sees as the problematic loss of The Guardian’s First Book Award, just discontinued this month after 17 years, “it seems to me that prizes are really important now because there’s so much coming onto the market now. Publishers have always over-produced, we accept that, but now there’s a new layer of authors also over-producing and self-publishing on Kindle and in additional marketplaces. That means there’s probably double the amount of reading material available that there ever was in any particular year, before the last few years.
“So I think anything that singles out a particular book or author is incredibly important now. So you’re welcome to some of our prizes.”
Going back to the now-canceled Guardian First Book Award, Jones said its loss is particularly unfortunate because it’s one of the prizes that did have the effect of selling copies of books: “It shifted books through bookshops, same as the Man Booker, same as the Baileys, same as the Samuel Johnson, same as the Costa. That’s the important thing about prizes. So I regret The Guardian’s decision.”
The ‘Wall of Content’, and Where Are Our New Readers?
Regular readers of Publishing Perspectives know of my own concern about how the industry now is producing so much more content than in the past but without making concerted, professionally conceived and mounted efforts to build new readership, particularly among male readers. Having imposed my own worries on the panel, I found agreement from Jones and Albanese.
By way of talking about the reported downturns in author earnings in recent years, in both markets, Jones and Albanese were as articulate as ever.
“The over-production is a real issue. If you have 100 writers writing for a fairly fixed reading community and suddenly that doubles to 200 or goes even further to a thousand, and the reading community is not growing, then basic economics dictates that everybody will earn a little bit less.
“That’s something the industry has not really grappled with. I’m not seeing anybody wishing to grapple with that.
“We either have to grow the market or we have to decrease the number of publications that we put into that market for the economics to rebalance.”
Albanese spoke of talking with an author who wanted to cut through the plethora of contact with better marketing:
“She was considering taking less of an advance and having the publisher put it into the marketing budget. She was talking with her agent about doing that.
“And I’m a former publisher, myself. And I said. ‘No, don’t you dare. Because every dollar that they [the publisher] don’t have to earn back is less they have to work for you. But the more they have to earn back from your advance, the harder they’re going to work to market your book.
“So giving them money for the marketing budget is not going to work. As the author and the agent, you want to get paid. It’s the publisher’s job to spend money marketing the book.
“You [an author] can spend your advance on your own marketing, and that might be fine. But get the money from the publisher.”
And near the end of our session, a book blogger spoke up to ask why there can be such long lags, sometimes of years, between the publication of a book in the US or UK and its availability in the other market.
Albanese offered to confer with her, find out which titles she was looking for, and check in with the pertinent publishers on the floor of London Book Fair and ask about them.
Jones: “At conferences and events like this,” London Book Fair, “you’ll hear a lot of people talk about ‘global publishing’ and how publishers are becoming more global and how publishers are globalizing…Actually, it’s just not happening as quickly as some think it is or would suggest it is. There’s a belief that everything is global but a reality that everything is quite local.”
Albanese: “I think that’s true, and I think we’re disappointing readers. Because today, we all have this.”
He held up his smartphone.
We all nodded warily.
And we wondered how soon the publishing industry will come to terms with the potentials of digital capability, the demand of a mobile era, and the needs of a readership that many publishers don’t yet seem ready to cultivate.
If you weren’t with us at London Book Fair to pick it up, download a copy of our Publishing Perspectives Spring 2016 Magazine here free of charge as a PDF.
In All’s Rights With the Book World, we look at a raft of issues facing publishers and their associates this season and at many trends and players in the field.
And we have coverage of the #LBF16 Quantum Conference here, as well as of the International Publishers Association’s 31st Congress here.