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Disappointing end-of-year book sales

6 January 2003

In both the US and the UK, book sales in the all-important pre-Christmas selling period have been flat. Full figures are not yet available but the book trade on both sides of the Atlantic has been reporting the same disappointing results. In the US holiday sales overall were variously reported as flat to down 11%. In the UK Nielsen BookscanUK bibliographic organisation, describing itself as 'the definitive retail monitoring service for books', which shows UK bestseller lists on its website. reported that sales were down by 9.8% compared to last year in the all-important week to 21st December.

In both countries Christmas came late, with a surge in buying just before the holiday started, which was not enough to make up for the poor sales in late November and December. Americans seem to have been adversely affected by worries about the economy, the threat of war with Iraq and bad weather. The British are thought to have held back because of the economy, particularly perhaps the much-discussed fear of a collapse in house prices, and, again, the threat of war.

Consumers were universally worried about money, with Americans probably more affected by corporate financial scandals and the British by anxieties about pensions. Everywhere the third year of an awful bear market and uncertainties about future stock market moves affected people's feelings about how rich they were. There's a lot to worry about just now and it looks as if the consumer boom is beginning to slow down at last. This is not good for book sales, but there is evidence that retail in general suffered worse.

Heavy discounting of books does not seem to have done the trick. The Guinness Book of Records, a prime Christmas purchase, was discounted on average to almost half of its published price in British bookshops. This intense discounting is being followed by big January sales, as the bookshops try to move their overstocks.

There is also the suspicion, but no proof as yet, that online sales boomed, helped by aggressive offers on free delivery. Clearly Amazon is now in a strong position, having seen off most of the competition, and many of us prefer the ease of online shopping to the last-minute rush in the bookshops. But online shopping is perfect for those who already know what they want, those all-important heavy book-buyers. There is some suspicion in the US that another worrying trend affecting holiday sales may have been a decline in sales to casual buyers.

The book trade will be looking hopefully, but without much confidence perhaps, towards a better 2003.