Books, books, books

The Publishers Association just published its 2016 figures for the UK book trade, so it’s time for my annual post about (a) how well the publishing industry has innovated its way through the wave of digital disruption compared with the music industry and (b) it isn’t always obvious which goods and services are susbstitutes and which are complements.

From the figures, it looks like digital is becoming steadily a platform for academic and professional texts, and those formats where it is inherently part of the product (audio) – consumer ebook sales have peaked and are declining. This is the substitutes-complements point: it’s always wrong to assume that a new technology will completely replace an old technology, and hard to tell a priori which will settle down to be the majority version in use. It is particularly the case that communications technologies tend to complement each other: on the whole people want more of all, although some do become redundant (telex).

Interestingly, sales of fiction have declined substantially in recent years, while children’s books and non-fiction have increased. This supports my theory about the demand for understanding in uncertain times, although probably it will turn out the growth was mainly stars’ memoirs and recipes….

As for the innovation, there has been experimentation with formats – for example, the popularity of short books (such as the excellent Perspectives series 🙂 – a new one, Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin by Dave Birch, will be out soon. Click here to pre-order for a signed copy at a discounted price!). But a key one has been to focus on the inherent distinctiveness of books: their physical bookness. The design and quality of books has improved enormously, in my view.

Of special interest to the academic world, academic and professional sales were up by 10% to £2.4bn. The sales of books rose 9% to £1.1bn,  total income from journals rose 10% to £1.2bn, and the share of journal income from subscriptions fell 1 percentage point to 79% of the total while income from Open Access article processing charges increased by 46% to £81m. For the time being (until government policy irrevocably damages one of the UK’s most successful sectors through a deranged approach to overseas students, and the impact of Brexit on employment and research funding), the UK accounts for 10% of journal article downloads and 12% of citations, and produces 16% of the world’s most‑cited journal articles. Only the US does better, the Yearbook says.

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