The thirst for understanding

The yearbook from the Publishers Association is always an interesting snapshot of the UK book market. The news this year was that a big (19.2%) increase in the value of digital sales to £509m in 2013 didn’t quite offset the small-ish (-5.2%) decline to £2,880m in physical book sales. The total was down 2.2% overall to just under £3.4bn in sales. The detail is always interesting too. Prices of physical books were up 2.3% in the year, with the biggest increases in non-fiction and academic/reference books – sales in the schools market were down after a couple of years of stonking rises. Intriguingly, the report doesn’t give e-book price changes – I wonder why? By far the fastest growth in e-book sales has been ‘consumer’ e-books ie. not academic, professional or school.

Last weekend there was an article in The Guardian about the revival of Penguin’s Pelican imprint of accessible non-fiction works. This weekend Lorien Kite in the Financial Times has reflected on the news about the Pelican series flapping back into existence. They were the product, he writes, of a more optimistic time when the spirit of self-improvement was strong. The first 10 sixpenny Penguins published in 1935 sold a million copies in four months.

Actually, I think the 1930s were not that optimistic,but rather similar to the 2010s in the degree of uncertainty people feel about the future. There is a great thirst for understanding. But what about books now, when they face such stiff competition from other, trivial, attractions like Candy Crush Saga and Instagramming one’s meals? Kite concludes – and I agree – “Yes, publishers of non-fiction feel embattled but there is plenty to reassure them, not just in the success of titles such as the million-selling  by Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist – or, for that matter, Piketty’s . The popularity of online lectures such as TED talks, the continuing boom in literary festivals, even the internet voluntarism epitomised by Wikipedia, all suggest that the self-improving impulse is alive and well.” In the UK industry figures, the number of units of physical books sold declined 7.3% in 2013, but in that mix was a 22.7% decline in fiction sales compared with a 3.3% drop in non-fiction sales. Penguin looks sensible to be pushing on non-fiction at present.

What’s more, the publishing industry is showing signs of navigating its digital transition rather better than other business sectors. I’d *really* like to know what’s going on with e-book pricing.

Incidentally, I came across somewhere yesterday – I can’t remember where so tell me if it was your tweet! – this from Kahneman: “We don’t think as much as we think we think.” Great line.

[amazon_image id=”0141033576″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Thinking, Fast and Slow[/amazon_image]


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