This morning’s Financial Times reports a study saying the number of insolvencies among publishers in the UK has been trending upwards, to 98 in the 12 months to August 2013, from 69 and 36 in the preceding two years. The suggestion is that although entry barriers in publishing have declined and it’s easier to reach customers thanks to digital technologies, margins have been squeezed. After all, in 2012 there were 2,450 books per million people published, which is apparently more per capita than any other country.
I’m a moderate optimist about publishing, which has been more innovative and responsive to customers than some of the other industries, swimming with the digital tides rather than paddling furiously against them. Indeed, I’m sufficiently optimistic to dabble a bit myself with Perspectives.
The FT story does note that many of the insolvencies concern magazine publishers, facing full-on competition from online and often free content. It quotes Richard Mollet of The Publishers Association (they omitted the apostrophe, not me) saying the biggest threat comes to very small publishers from self-publishing. I’m not sure that distinction makes much sense any more – it’s all competitive fringe to the bigger publishers. It isn’t entirely clear from the PA figures, but it looks to me like margins have been increasing for the book sector as a whole – sales values rose 4% in 2012 and volumes declined by 1%. And e-book margins are surely much higher than those for physical books, given the pricing points that have been so successfully established for e-books. Sales of digital books in the UK rose by 66% in 2012.
The really good news about the effects of the technological changes is that people have much greater access to things to read, and greater voice if they want to engage in the debate. So we have the paradox of an increasingly vibrant, engaged public conversation online at the same time that conventional political debate in many countries is becoming increasingly impoverished and ritualised. The public space is reverberating with informed debate – you just wouldn’t know it if you stuck to the conventional channels.