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Are books recession-proof?

25 August 2008

The book trade is beginning to wonder if books will weather the economic storm. The received wisdom is that they do well in a recession because they are small-ticket items, but is this really true?

The recession of the early nineties, the worst downturn in the UK since the war, seems not to have affected the book trade too badly. The sector was still buoyant after three years of slump in consumer spending. John Monk, then of Books Etc, said: 'Books were in a much better position than big-ticket items such as holidays, electricals and furniture, which really suffered'.

Since the problem this time started with the housing market, as the property boom has turned to bust in both the UK and the US, areas usually stimulated by extra spending generated by moving house will be affected much more badly.

It's cheaper of course to stay at home with a book when times are tough, and books can also be sourced more cheaply if necessary, through libraries, friends and families, or from special offers or second-hand.

In the UK the big difference from the early nineties is the end of the Net Book Agreement, which has brought vicious discounting to the UK market. And effectively book-buyers around the world are benefiting from lower book costs due to the competition from Amazon, supermarkets and price-cutting stores.

So the outlook looks gloomier than it has been, but not disastrous. A downward trend perhaps, but not something that booksellers cannot survive. The independent bookshops which have survived so far are lean and well-adapted to their local environment, with loyal customer bases of book-buyers who do not shop on the basis of price alone.

In the US, Barnes and Noble, the nation's biggest bookseller, has just shown a 2% decline on the same quarter last year, although their internet sales were up and store sales fell by 4.7%. In spite of Stephenie Meyer (see last week's New Review), things are down a bit and the company is planning to open just 20-25 new stores next year, rather than the 30-35 it will open this year, because of the knock-on effect of the cancellation of new malls by developers.

This is not deep recession though. At least books are regarded as essential by many book-buyers. And authors can comfort themselves with the idea of more readers across the world as literacy increases and English spreads ever more widely.