Sunday, May 11, 2008

News from the publishing world this week

There have been several interesting stories in the publishing press this week, the first of which concerns Waterstones, who are of course, the UK's largest and most influential book seller. The Bookseller Online reports that their business is very much in a growth phase, as the company has seen like for like growth in the last 16 weeks of the financial year jump by 6.6 percent.

MD Gerry Johnson said that this was largely attributed to a very strong performance from books, which are at the heart of this growth. The performance bodes well for the full year results, due for release on July 1st. Total sales at Waterstone's at the moment, are up by 4.7 percent compared to last year, with expected turnover of £563m, compared with £537.5m in 2007. This is an excellent record for such a competitive market given the fact that we are supposed to be heading into a recession, and it just goes to show the maybe the British public do value books after all, as they are obviously still spending money on them - including my own one - Genesis of Man.

Waterstones very much have the edge over Borders, as most of their branches are in town centres, and able to capitalise on passing trade as well as the lunch time brigade who visit during the working day, as indeed I often do. They seem to have found the correct balance between the needs of both authors and readers, which Borders have so far failed to do, and this is obviously paying dividends - in more ways than one!

Tesco in the meantime, has unveiled plans to double its own book sales within the next three years to £200m, and are also looking to directly challenge Amazon online. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen, and I suppose will depend upon your point of view. I think though they may have their work cut out, as although their online inventory must be almost as large as Amazon's, people associate them more with top 40 paperbacks and celebrity titles than anything else, and there is of course far more to book selling than just this.

That being said, the company saw in growth in sales during 2006 of 16.6 percent volume and 19.15 percent in value, giving them a market share of some 10 percent. They are still then a force to be reckoned with.

Research from consumer rights agency Next Best Thing, confirms this week what I have long suspected - that it is not reviews or media coverage that drive sales of books, but rather, good quality displays in store.

The research, commissioned by The Bookseller surveyed 1000 people across the UK, one quarter of whom claimed to get information regarding new books and authors from such displays. This does make sense when you think about it, as I know from my own experience that the majority of books that I buy are those that I discover from just browsing the shelves. It goes to show just how important it is for the newly published to get their books into as many stores as possible, as it is the act of being on the shelves that drives that demand in the first place. It is just a shame that the majority of small and self publishers cannot afford the fees demanded by the chains for good placement and promotions that would drive their sales even more, but such is life. Sooner or later things always go full circle anyway, and our time will come, perhaps sooner than we think.

These findings overturn all conventional wisdom on the subject, which found that word of mouth is the most powerful tool for driving sales and creating best sellers. This is probably true to a large extent, but it is is true that this success would not happen if the books were not in the stores to begin with - as they have to be available.

The survey forms part of Reading the Future, a major consumer trends report to celebrate the 150th anniversary of The Bookseller. Other areas covered include cover design, discounting (the results of this one will be interesting), formats, browsing behaviour and emerging genres. Results will be viewed by people’s age, social group and current reading habits, and put in the context of wider cultural and economic patterns. I will look out for the full results when they are published and do my best to report back on here.

Talking of discounting, I see that Mexico has voted by a massive majority to introduce fixed book prices. Hallelujah ! The law was adopted by the Senate on 29th April by 107 votes in favour, with just two against and five abstentions, according to the French weekly Livres bdo.

This is the second time in recent years that the Mexican parliament has voted in favour of such legislation. The new law, which seems entirely sensible to me, if passed, will ban all discounts on retail book prices for the first three years after publication. This will not include school text books for elementary and lower secondary schools, which are bought by the State - I wonder why that is ! ?

This seems to be part of a growing trend, as many European countries also have such legislation, indeed, we did here in our own country until 1995. Such legislation now applies to much of Western Europe - including Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Spain. Israel is also working towards a fixed book price. Israeli ambassador to France Daniel Shek said in March that a single book price "will happen sooner or later, whether by agreement or legislation". Perhaps it will also be re-introduced here, for the sake of both book sellers and writers.

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