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A good Christmas for books

7 January 2008

It is good to be able to follow up last week's story on the continuing strength of reading with a report that Christmas 2007 was not the disaster that had been feared in the book trade. In the UK sales for the four weeks up to 29th December were up 5% on the same period last year. In the US the independents reported solid sales, although the chains continued to consolidate their lead, accounting for 33% of unit book purchases in the January through September period, according to figures compiled by PubTrack Consumer. While the US chains had the highest market share, purchases made through online retailers represented 20% of book purchases and the UK showed the same trend towards increasing internet sales.

The Christmas holiday falling on a Tuesday meant that shoppers had an extra three days to visit bookstores, at a time when it was generally thought too late to order from Amazon. The internet giant is nonetheless expected to show record figures.

In the UK it was a 'range' Christmas, with no one book dominating the bestseller lists. This is actually much better for booksellers, as it's easier to keep a range of books in stock and also there was more of a feeling that books offered something for everyone. Overall, the year to 29th December showed growth of 6.2% by value in the UK, which even after inflation is 3.2%, a solid achievement.

Perhaps these results are not particularly remarkable, but they have to be seen against the background of a year in which the demise of the book was widely discussed, with fears about the dangers implicit in the rapid rate of change and possible fallout from digitisation. January 2008 shows the business pages full of gloomy predictions, and the consensus is that the consumer boom is over in both the US and the UK. The expectation is that the credit crunch is going to affect everything, even if both countries manage to avoid sliding into actual recession.

And how would recession affect the book trade? The received wisdom is that books do well in times of economic downturn because they are a relatively cheap form of entertainment and gift purchase. Previous recessions have not always shown this to be the case, and there's no doubt that the growth and prospering of the chains internationally have been attributed to a consumer boom which relates very directly to people having more discretionary spending power.

But at least the book trade is dealing with books, to which many heavy readers are addicted, and have become used to buying rather than borrowing. The international book business will not emerge unscathed from the likely downturn in 2008, but it looks much better placed than most. And this means that new authors will continue to get their books published, even if it is gong to be tough getting through to publishers and agents.