London Wall Publishing

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

In this mobile, tablet and app-dominated world, it was good old-fashioned print that proved the success story at Christmas – and within print it was one of publishing’s oldest, most venerable, even old-fashioned, of names that proved the real star, albeit thanks to a new twist that name was given.

The star that led so many buyers to the tills this Christmas was undoubtedly Ladybird, with Michael Joseph’s deceptively simple spoofs, such as How it Works: The Husband, shifting more than a million copies.

Although final figures are still to come in, early indications are that those titles helped make 2015 a very good year for the printed book industry.  According to research body Nielsen BookScan, almost 7 million more print books were sold in 2015 compared to 2014.  In value terms this amounted to £1.49bn for the 52 weeks ending 26 December, a 6.5% increase on the previous year.  In volume terms, just over 173.3m printed books were sold in 2015, a 3.7% rise on 2014.

On both sides of the Atlantic there seems to be a mood of optimism.  At the Bookseller’s FutureBook conference in London last month, Faber Chief Executive Stephen Page observed that “something is changing, something profound and cultural, as books and ideas have proved resilient to the disruptive technologies that have swept aside other industries”.  He went on to observe that “the pioneering new formats” publishers have developed have expanded but not replaced the book.  “The vast majority of our audience want books in physical or e-forms; they know where to buy them and how to read them, and they will pay for them.”

In the US, Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch sounded similarly upbeat in the Wall Street Journal where he wrote: “After several years of rapid e-book growth, their sales topped out at about one-quarter of publishers’ revenues and have declined for a year.  Print books have proved durable because, as a format, they’re simply hard to improve on.  Music, movies and TV were all fundamentally altered because digitisation allowed readers to experience those entertainments anywhere.  Books were portable the day they were invented.  Other forms have only just caught up.”

Observers sometimes liken the pre-digital book industry to Downton Abbey.  Essentially, everyone knew their place; everyone had a defined role; and tea was always served in the Library at 4pm.  Then digital happened –and oh Lord, look what they’ve done to the place.  Suddenly, everyone who used to be ‘below stairs’ – aspiring novelists, for example- realised that they no longer had to be at the beck and call of their ‘masters’ upstairs, the publishers, and they could take tea wherever, and whenever, they damn well liked.  They could publish books themselves – and a great many of them did, and still do. 

Then, as we all know, many publishers noted how successful those self-published efforts were….and invited them into the Library to take tea anyway!  In other words, they offered to traditionally publish them, an offer which many self-published writers were glad to take up (while also maintaining their independent, self-published careers too).

All of the above is known, of course, but it’s sometimes worth reminding ourselves.  It’s useful to know where you’ve been when trying to work out where you might be going.  The former is easy, the latter much harder.  Ironically, the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, is to give some indication of where we might be going with his next venture.  This is to be a serialised novella released in weekly instalments via an app from publisher Orion.  The story, called Belgravia, revolves around two families and something life-changing that happens at a ball, the details of which are not revealed until the story is picked up 25 years later.

The initiative is a blending of the traditional and the modern.  For example, the publisher rightly points out that the serialisation aspect harks back to Dickens.  The venture is arguably indicative of the direction the industry is moving, with more and more content being consumed on mobile (but bought in print at Christmas).  The first episode and background material will be free, with future episodes having to be bought.  One intriguing innovation is that the app’s ‘landing page’ will change according to day or night-time access.

Such developments will doubtless continue apace this year – and let’s hope it’s a happy one for writers, readers, publishers, booksellers and libraries (whether they are serving tea or not).


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.