London Wall Publishing

Shelf Life – news from around the book business – February 2016

More data concerning the slowing of ebook sales and the resurgence of print has emerged as the industry enters what one might call the post-digital era.

Comparing 2015 with 2012, volume sales of ebooks for the so-called big five publishers – Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster – are down by 2.5%, according to research body Nielsen BookScan; and as these pages have recorded before, sales of print books in 2015 were 3.7% up on 2014, amounting to a further 7m copies (and no, they weren’t all colouring books, so stop carping at the back there).

In the light of this, small announcements from publishers take on an added significance.  Thus Hachette has said it is to close its e-only imprint The Murder Room which it launched in 2012.  Remember when once it was all going digital and ‘dead tree’ books were to be no more?  Now you have a publisher closing a digital imprint.  The Murder Room specialised in vintage crime, giving new life to old titles.  It says that “the market is not as buoyant as we’d anticipated”, and yet it’s worth observing that many bookshops are currently displaying similar vintage crime in the British Library Crime Classics series, brought back into print by the British Library Publishing Division.  This would seem to be one small example of where digital has ‘failed’ and print succeeded.

One group has certainly been flexing their muscles as the new year gets underway: authors.  Philip Pullman’s clarion cry for authors to be paid for talks at literary festivals met with a huge wave of support by his fellow writers.  He resigned from his position as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival over the issue and has forced the festival to reconsider its position.

Author groups in the UK, US and Australia have also renewed their call for new, standard contracts that they hope will include a doubling of the standard ebook royalty to 50%.  In the UK, the Society of Authors has launched the Creator Campaign to make contract terms fairer.   Its Chair, Daniel Hahn, said: “We are asking publishers to implement certain changes – such as specifying term limits, clarifying accounting procedures – to make things just a little easier for authors, from whom publishers expect more than ever.”  

In addition to higher ebook royalties, among proposals is it is calling for is a reversion of rights that publishers aren’t exploiting “through a kind of ‘use it or lose it’ clause.  It says: “[This] requires a willingness on the part of publishers to reconsider some old habits and contemplate surrendering some clauses that have been in contracts, unchallenged, for decades and have no rightful place there today”.

How do publishers themselves see the months ahead?  Stephen Page, CEO of Faber said: “The developing story of writing and reading in print and digital forms will continue apace, led by growing confidence in bookshops and the continued and developing interest in print books.  E-reading will migrate more rapidly to smartphones, and self-publishing will continue to grow to meet the substantial demand, especially from readers of genre publishing.”

At HarperCollins, CEO Charlie Redmayne said: “I expect that we will see more transmedia storytelling and the exploration of new platforms, with publishers focusing more time and resource in this area.”

January also saw the passing of a figure who has lived through many of the great changes in publishing.  Lord Weidenfeld, co-founder of Weidenfeld & Nicholson died on 20 January, aged 96.  He was one of the last great émigré publishers and a throwback to an era when individuals gave their names to imprints: André Deutsch, William Heinemann, Paul Hamlyn and many more, notably Alfred Knopf in the US.  Among great names he published were Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy and Edna O’Brien.  The industry paused that week to remember him in numerous tributes.

Finally, if you are self-published author, depressed by your sales figures, take heart from a self-published author who wrote under the name Amy Silver in 2014.  She published four novels in that year, with sales totalling a measly 371 units.  Then she wrote something called The Girl on the Train under her own name, Paula Hawkins.  You may have heard of it.

Latest entries:

London Wall Publishing’s Project Manager, Fiona Marsh, with US actor, Trey Gerrald, at the 18th annual Independent Publisher Book Awards held during BookExpo America in New York receiving the Gold Award for Romance Fiction for The Echoes of Love by Hannah Fielding. 

Launched in 1996 and conducted each year to honor the year's best independently published books, the "IPPY" Awards recognize merit in a broad range of subjects and reward authors and publishers who "take chances and break new ground." Independent publishers, along with independent booksellers, have long held an important role in the world of books, offering an alternative to "the big five" conglomerated media publishers.