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Big four show sales drop

8 February 2010

Figures for 2009 just released by the big UK publishers show just how tough a time they had and what a difficult book market we’ve had in the past year.

Seven of the top UK publishers had negative sales growth last year measured by the Total Consumer Market figures, as did half of the top 20 publishers. The only one of the top four to do well was the market leader Hachette and that was because of Stephenie Meyer, whose £29.4m ($46m) of sales accounted for an extraordinary 10.2% of the group’s total UK sales. This had the effect of putting Hachette well ahead of its rival Random House, giving it a 2.7% lead with a 16.4% market share.

Random House’s 9.2% drop in value of sales meant that it put £24.4m ($38.22m) less through the tills last year, in spite of having a new Dan Brown in the autumn. HarperCollins also did less well, down .7% with £15.2m ($23.81m) less in sales, whilst Penguin’s sales shrunk by .3%.

Surprisingly in this age of corporations getting larger, the big four showed a drop to 47.4% for their cumulative share, the lowest since 2005. The Total Consumer Market showed a contraction of 1.2% in value, down to £1.752bn ($2.74bn). This was not as bad as 2008, when the drop was 1.5%, but it was still an unwelcome contraction.

In the States Meyer also dominated sales, selling more than 10 million books over the year, which was however less than the 15 million she sold in 2008. Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol sold 2,854,658, more than any of her individual titles, but Meyer made a bigger impression on the figures than Brown because she had four books in the top ten.

Publishers undoubtedly had a hard time and the redundancies made by the big companies early in 2009 must have seemed necessary later in the year. It’s easy to understand why, with strong pressure on discounts from both Amazon and the supermarkets, publishers chose to cut overheads and lists to ensure that they survived the recession.

For authors this has been even harder. Many published authors who are not major bestsellers but have made a steady livelihood from writing are finding that they can no longer find a publisher. Those who can are receiving lower advances and, generally speaking, cannot move elsewhere as they have nowhere else to go.

The death of the midlist has been long lamented, but this was the year when the impact hit with a sickening thud and now it really is very hard to find a home for a manuscript which is good and shows promise but is not instant bestseller material. It is worth dwelling on the figures mentioned above as they make the publishers’ decisions to cut their lists more comprehensible. In this recession you have to cut out anything which is not paying its way and concentrate on what seems more likely to work. Even that is not necessarily a recipe for survival, since, as publishers found last autumn, some expensive books, particularly celebrity biography, failed to perform.

For the agents this means there has been a quiet culling going on, so some authors have lost both their publisher and their agent. Agents are being very careful about taking on new clients and have to have a really clear reason for doing so.

So, how long does this go on for? That’s really the $64 million question and relates to the recession as a whole. In the end publishers need new books and they have to invest in new authors, so the time will come when they will have to start buying more aggressively. The other thing is not to let the problems of the big publishers, which have large overheads and a certain amount of inflexibility built into their size, to obscure the fact that small publishers still have many opportunities and self-publishers can use the Internet to publicise their own work.

The overall drop in book sales in the UK in 2009 was only 1.2% in value, suggesting, particularly since this was a year of heavy discounting, that most book buyers kept on buying pretty steadily. Perhaps they relied on books passed on by friends and family a bit more, but most book-buyers seem to have regarded their book purchases as essential. Long may this continue.