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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The health of the publishing industry

Yesterday the Publisher’s Association put out the press release on its 2015 figures  with the headline ‘Strong Year for UK publishing industry.’ Total revenues increased by 1.3% (or about £100m) to £4.4bn. With inflation around zero last year, this is a real terms increase. The release highlighted the increase in physical book sales (and particular non-fiction – but I don’t know if this category includes the depressing proliferation of adult colouring books); and the first recorded decrease in digital sales.

You have to buy the statistics, so I’ve only done a few sums on the figures in the press release. This is not helped by the fact that the author of the release was a bit hazy about the difference between millions and billions, so there was a bit of guesswork involved. Revenues from physical book sales were up 0.4% to £2.76bn (an increase of around £12m). Revenues from digital sales were down 1.6% to £554m. Interestingly, then, physical sales continue to be much larger in scale.

And what about the gap? There is a line stating: “2015 was a great year for learned journals sales and demonstrates the strength of academic publishers in driving new innovative business models that contribute towards maintaining the UK’s position as a hub of global research excellence.” Piecing together the figures, it looks like a 5% (or approx £50m) increase to £1.1bn in sales of academic journals.

Export sales were down slightly – the rest of Europe accounts for 35% of the UK industry’s sales. As far as I can tell, the export figures are included in the above three categories (physical, digital, academic journals).

So all in all, yes a good year, pleasing for those of us devoted to physical books. But most pleasing of all to the publishers of academic journals (and not so good for taxpayers and students who fund the library purchases).

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Complements and substitutes

I spotted some tweets this morning about increases in the sales of physical media, including books.

MaxCRoser
Print books are on the rise again 571 million paper books have been sold in the US in 2015 https://t.co/1KcL5lApE6 https://t.co/eYYt5zE8cU
21/12/2015 09:18
robertcottrell
Book sales rising; biggest movie opening ever; fastest album sales ever, WaPo doing OK. We owe the internet an apology.
21/12/2015 08:21

These developments seem to overturn the narrative of ever-greater cannibalisation by online consumption.

But that narrative assumes physical and digital versions are always substitutes for each other, when there is no a priori reason to think that substitutability is boundless. The same substitution assumption was made about telephones when they first spread, but the empirical evidence seems to be that telephone and face-to-face contact might have become complements for each other rather than substitutes. The easier it became to arrange to meet someone in person, the more often it happened.

This is unlikely to be true for all physical media. While it is easy to see how reading part of a book online, or an article about a book, could start to increase physical sales, or how listening to music online can stimulate concert-going and maybe CD buying (even LPs!), it is less obviously true about newspapers, say. I don’t want to be all Pollyanna about this – and Anita Elberse’s for one provides some of the gloomier evidence about the effect of the switch to digital on most content suppliers even if the aggregate figures look healthy.

But the moral is, at least be aware of what you assume about substitutes and complements when predicting the future impact of digital; if you haven’t thought about it, you’ve still made an assumption. It might be wrong.

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Who benefits from e-books?

It’s holiday time and the world divides into those who download all their reading onto an electronic device and those who cart piles of books around in their suitcase. I’m one of the latter, although getting better about leaving paperbacks I’ve read behind in hotels and cottages. However, I have downloaded onto my iPad the articles from the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (free to read & always excellent.)

Among this issue’s essays is a symposium on technology, the labour market and growth, which looks terrific. There’s also a very interesting article by Richard Gilbert on ebooks and publishing, which concludes the outlook is not great for traditional publishers:

“The e-book story shows how the traditional players in the book industry are struggling to achieve a new market equilibrium in a time where their industry is facing severe technological disruption and illustrates the hazards they face in attempting to manage the transition to that new equilibrium.”
My gloss would be that not all publishers are the same. As The Guardian noted recently, university presses are doing well – I agree with Sam Leith here that the big conglomerates are too ‘me too’ in their approach; and as a small publisher myself with LPP I’m optimistic for new entrants. On the whole, innovation in the book world has so far probably been good for readers as there is a proliferation of new titles and formats.
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Read more (e-)books!

There were some new figures from the Association of American Publishers that seemed to indicate e-book sales growth picked up in 2014 after a dip but the trend has slowed; and that paperback sales growth was strong while sales at retail stores increased modestly after some years of decline. Total sales revenues were up about 4.5% and unit sales 3.5%.

I’ve often written about how innovative publishers have been in their response to digital, compared to the music industry – okay, not a high hurdle, but still. It has certainly been a tough environment for the business but how encouraging it is to see more words (and pictures) being read in more formats than ever.

Another of my perennial themes is that people assume new technologies or formats are pure substitutes for pre-existing ones. Often with communications technologies (although not always – bye-bye fax machines and telegrams) they are complements, or start out as substitutes but the older technology then finds a stable and complementary niche.

Of course there is a binding constraint that ensures some substitutions have to occur, and that is time to spend on the various leisure pursuits. Looking on the bright side, if the robots do all the work, we’ll all have more time for reading.

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