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Latest changes in the book trade 2


Publishing | Latest changes in the book trade 2

The current situation in the book trade is one of rapid change. It's important for writers to understand what is happening as it will impact on their own chances of getting their work published and how it will be published. This newly revised series will look at the changes in the book trade, with a different focus each week. First, where books are heading and what changes are taking place at the sharp end of the book trade - the bookselling world.

2: Publishing

Since the first version of this article was added to the site, the world has changed as it has tipped into recession. In the beginning the effect of this on publishing was rather muted, more especially in the UK than the US, with an optimistic view that publishing might escape the worst ravages of the downturn. Increasingly this seems too hopeful and publishers are announcing large-scale redundancies as sales fall and lists are therefore cut.

Let us first go back and look at the longer-term trends.

In the last few years publishing has seen an inexorable move towards conglomeratisation. In the UK Random House UKPenguin Random House have more than 50 creative and autonomous imprints, publishing the very best books for all audiences, covering fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s books, autobiographies and much more. Click for Random House UK Publishers References listing's pre-eminence in terms of size has been successfully challenged by Hachette, which acquired Hodder Headline and then Time-Warner Publishing in quick succession, to achieve the largest market share in 2007. The percentages were: Random House 14.7%, Penguin 10.5% and HarperCollins 8.3%, meaning that the four biggest publishers have nearly 50% of the UK market. In fact these percentages are already out of date, as Hachette subsequently consolidated its lead by acquiring Piatkus Books and the latest figures show Penguin shrinking to 9.2%.

A look at the US publishing scene shows the same dominance by the big publishers, with Random House leading the pack but HarperCollins, Penguin USA, the Hachette Book Group and Simon & Schuster also major players in the trade (general) publishing area.

These big publishers are very focused on growing their market share, and in spite of the recession sometimes still seem more interested in this than they are in profitability. For their owners the latter is key to their long-term future, since they are above all commercial ventures - and are expected to turn in growth and a profit every year. The corporations of which they are a part - Bertelsmann (Random House), Lagardere (Hachette), News International (HarperCollins) and Pearson (Penguin) have many other interests and are not necessarily focused on the book trade. They are the publishing divisions of large corporations and may act more like big companies than like publishers used to be.

These big publishers are highly competitive. They are naturally interested in bestsellers, as these deliver the big numbers, the shelf space in the bookshops and the high visibility they are looking for. Anthony Cheetham, who was then CEO of new UK publisher Quercus, had this to say about blockbusters in the Bookseller:

'To understand the blockbuster phenomenon you have to look at the successes rather than bask in the Schadenfreude of the failures. It's not easy to convey the impact on corporate thinking of the sheer cataract of money that floods the coffers when a really humungous hit comes your way. A single book that sells a million copies will generate revenues larger than the annual turnover of 90% of Britain's publishing companies...

Once this phenomenon has happened to you, you are a blockbuster junkie, and you have the cash to indulge your addiction. If you are one of the larger corporate players, it doesn't take long to work out that the best way to contain risk is to place several bets. A single seven-figure punt carries a significant risk of failure, but a single hit will more than likely outweigh the cost of two failures.'

These comments relate to the acquisition of celebrity biographies, but large publishers compete even more aggressively for the bestselling fiction authors who will deliver the big sales. Many observers thought that Headline were doing a good job with James Patterson, but there was still room for Random House UK to come along with a huge deal which contracts the author to deliver eight books a year. At the time it seemed doubtful that Random House could make this work, but in fact it now looks as if they have done so. The value of the mega-selling author is almost beyond price to a growth-hungry publisher when you consider the shelf-space their books can command, the value of their backlists and the wonderfully consistent torrent of money they will generate.

In a time of recession book buyers are even more likely to reach for the names they know, so little has changed as regards bestselling authors. The keen anticipation with which Dan Brown's new blockbuster is awaited this autumn shows just how much publishing is dependent on the really mega-selling authors, authors who in this case will attract light readers in large quantities to buy the books they want.

Whilst all this corporate in-fighting is going on, it is good to be able to report that some independent publishers have been doing quite well. In the UK the indies in the Independent Alliance, led by Faber, have pooled resources to run their own sales operation, with impressive results. There was an increase in the UK's Independent Publishers Guild members of 515, up from 440 three years earlier. But the gap between the corporate publishers and the indies has widened. A favourite tactic of the former has been to grow by acquisition, and they have taken over many of the mid-sized independent publishers.

Publishers may not have made much use of it for new books yet, but print on demand does lower the bar for starting a publishing company, in that less capital is required for the start-up. More new independent publishers should be the result, but in the UK the success of Quercus has shown that quite a small company can seize the initiative by making bold acquisition decisions and giving strong promotional support for its titles. The founders of Quercus would also be the first to admit that luck has also played its part, with successes such as Steff Penney's win of the Costa Prize with The Tenderness of Wolves.

But publishing is hugely affected by what is going on in bookselling and the increasing focus on selling bestsellers makes it hard to promote and sell niche books through bookshops. Many slightly marginal genres, such as literary novels and poetry, are affected by this. It's hard for new authors to find a publisher when the structure of the book trade dictates that publishers are really only looking for new authors who have a real chance of becoming instant bestsellers.

Added to this there's also now the effect of the recession and the combined effects of all these pressures mean that, all round the world, it's rarely been a harder time to be a publisher.

Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage.


Latest changes in the Book Trade:

1 Bookselling
2 Publishing
3 Print on demand and the Long Tail
4 Self-publishing' - career suicide' or 'really great'?
5 Writers' routes to their audiences
6 Copyright under pressure

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