Friday, January 23, 2009

Publishing in crisis

After a month long hiatus, during which time I have been preoccupied with other more pressing matters, it is high time I turned my thoughts once again to what has been happening in the publishing world. The answer to that is quite a lot!

Things may not be good on the High Street, with Waterstones closing stores and publishers making mass redundancies, but the self publishing sector continues to go from strength to strength. This week, reports that Newsstand claims to be the first UK company to have successfully installed the Espresso Book Machine. The article goes on to state that Newsstand are in talks with a number of book publishers to offer their books via an on-demand book printing service.

Newsstand, which describes itself as "a jack of all trades", works with newspaper and magazine publishers and offers online magazine subscription and poly wrapping services. They claim to have printed between 500 and 600 books since the Espresso Machine was installed last October. Using the Espresso Machine, Newsstand charge £10 for standard books, and £14 for enlarged print ones.

The article goes on to state that Newsstand are using the version 1.5 of the Espresso Machine, of which there are just nine in the world. Academic bookseller Blackwells, plan to trial the machine in their Charing Cross store in the autumn.

This news comes a few weeks after the announcement that Waterstones are to shed 200 jobs, following the opening of their centralised distribution hub at Burton-upon-Trent, which becomes fully operational next week. Store closures are also in the offing, with Queensgate in Peterborough, the latest casualty. The second branch in Peterborough is unaffected.

The news also comes in the wake of mass redundancies at Cambridge University Press, following the decision to move their printing operation abroad in an effort to cut costs. This is no different to banks and insurance companies opening overseas call centres, but as expected, the unions are up in arms. Chief executive Stephen Bourne said "We know that this is an incredibly difficult time for those staff that are affected, and we will be doing all we can to support them through these changes." Given my own recent experiences, I wish them well, and pray that he is right.

Unite, the UK's largest trade union (not one that I have ever heard of), expressed shock at the announcement, a few days ago. The scale of the redundancies is such that 8 out of 10 jobs at the company's printing division will go, a total of 133 jobs. A 90 day consultation period has now begun, during which time Unite will attempt to change the company's mind, thus preventing these job losses. A spokesperson for the union said "We urge management to rethink this decision. Unite will do everything in our power to fight the closure and prevent compulsory redundancies."

Cambridge University Press is not the only university press to be experiencing problems, since across the Atlantic, rival Oxford University Press are also making 60 redundancies at their two offices in New York and Cary, North Carolina, as a "cost cutting exercise" (since when has making redundancies been anything else).

Closer to home, Bertrams commercial director Graham Rand is also to lose his job at the end of January, following re-structuring.

The crisis in publishing is such that Nigel Evans, Conservative MP for the Ribble Valley in Lancashire is calling upon the Government to provide more support for small businesses, following the closure of his local independent bookseller, Kaydee Bookshop in Clitheroe. The bookseller has announced that it will be closing at the end of January after 60 years in business, with the loss of nine jobs. Figures show the number of independent bookshops in the UK has plummeted by 22 percent in the last 10 years, with 1390 remaining against 1774 in 1999. I am surprised given the pressures they face, that this many have managed to stay in business at all.

It is the same old story of rents going up, and book prices going down, as discounting continues to spiral out of control. Discounting has always been a hot topic on my blog, and perhaps my biggest bugbear, and it is the subject of the moment on The Bookseller too with those both for and against. Graham Neill and Philip Stone report that the level of discounting has been described as "crazy" by Simon Juden, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association. This comes after it was revealed that the value slashed off RRP of books during the past two years has hit almost one billion pounds.

Epitomising the sheer stupidity of the discounting culture, figures from Nielsen BookScan showed that despite falling book sales in 2008, the level of discounting increased. The value of sales in 2008 was £1.78 billion, a decline of 1.5 percent from 2007’s figure of £1.8 billion. To bring this into stark contrast, if all books sold during this time had been sold at the recommended retail price, publishers would have earned almost one billion more per year - £2.27 billion in 2008 and £2.3 billion in 2007.

Books were more heavily discounted in 2008 than ever before, with the average selling price down at £7.49 (half the cover price of my own work). This was down from £7.57 in 2007. At the same time, the level of discounting increased by 0.2 percent to £499,072,252.

Echoing my own thoughts, Juden said it was "crazy" that an industry’s most successful products were discounted the heaviest. He said: "What we sell the most of we charge the least amount for. Books are a valuable and cultural good and should be sold as such." Personally I don't see what difference it makes as to how successful a book is - it takes time and money to write these books, and much effort not to mention blood, sweat and tears, goes into that process. That time and effort needs to be valued, and at the moment that is just not happening. The wonder the industry is in such crisis.
Perhaps we should pay heed to our Bibles, as one of the regular readers from the newsletter that I edit, pointed out when he sent me a clipping from the Isle of Wight County Press.
The clipping states:
"Millions of words have been poured out about the financial crisis, with theories, recriminations, and remedies being flung a nauseum.
Had everyone paid attention to the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, all this could have been avoided.
Writing in the seventh century BC, he put it in a nutshell: "Trouble is coming", he warned, getting straight to the point, "to the man who amasses goods that are not his and loads himself with pledges. Will not your creditors suddenly arise?"
Indeed they will [and have] and I am grateful to Mr Habukkak for making everything much clearer than any of Robert Peston's witterings."
Enough said.

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