Celebrity titles help sales of physical books break through £75m mark, the strongest weekly performance since Christmas 2009
The strongest weekly sale of print books in three years is being hailed as a sign that “real books” are fighting back in a digital age thought to be dominated by e-readers and tablet computers.
Big-selling celebrity titles helped physical book sales break through £75m in the seven days to 22 December, delivering the book trade’s strongest week since Christmas 2009. The weekly takings of £75.4m were a near 20% increase on the previous week and £1.4m higher than in the equivalent week last year.
A Jamie Oliver cookbook that promises home-cooked meals in (almost) the time it takes to microwave a ready meal, comic Miranda Hart playing her life for laughs, and Bradley Wiggins’s account of his road to Tour de France and Olympic glory proved to be the nation’s last-minute stocking fillers of choice.
With many authors and publishers fearful about how book-buying habits are being altered by the growing popularity of e-readers and tablets as reading devices, the news was welcomed by writers including William Dalrymple, author of Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, who took to Twitter saying: “Real books fighting back!”
Antony Beevor, whose books include The Second World War and Stalingrad, said the figures were potentially good news for an industry that has been hit hard by the economic downturn as well as structural changes wrought by the internet.
“This looks to be positive in many ways but the question is, what are the figures for sales of serious fiction,” Beevor said. “I would fear they are down quite considerably, and that is probably true of serious books across the board.”
He cautioned that physical copies of celebrity memoirs tended to sell well because part of their attraction lay in the pictures, which are often not included in digital versions.
Jamie Oliver’s 15-Minute Meals was the bestselling book, shifting 140,155 copies in the UK last week, according to industry magazine the Bookseller. The celebrity chef retains pole position in the official UK top 50 ahead of Hart’s Is it Just Me? and Wiggins’s My Time, which sold 64,691 and 59,524 copies respectively.
The last-minute presents dash pushed Guinness World Records 2013 into fourth place, while the boost provided by Peter Jackson’s blockbuster treatment helped a film tie-in edition of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which was first published in 1937, complete the top five. The Tolkien novel sold 72,900 copies across its numerous physical editions in the pre-Christmas week, up nearly 40% on the previous week. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi also enjoyed a big-screen surge, with sales of the Man Booker winner up more than 60% on the previous week, shifting close to 40,000 copies.
Philip Downer, a books industry consultant whose career has included stints at Waterstone’s, WH Smith and Borders UK, said it was too early to hail a comeback of the “p-book” – an industry joke for the old-school printed version. “It’s a case of swallows and summers. I think everything is in flux,” he said.
Downer pointed to industry data from Nielsen BookScan that shows physical book sales in the UK have declined every year since hitting a peak of £1.8bn in 2007 – the year the final Harry Potter instalment landed in bookshops. In the first 10 months of 2012, printed book sales were down 3.5% year on year in volume terms and 5.5% by value.
While e-readers such as the Kindle, the Kobo and the Nook were among this Christmas’s most popular gifts, the monochrome devices are already being outsold by a new generation of tablets which includes the iPad Mini and Google Nexus 7. Indeed, industry experts think e-reader sales may already have peaked.
James McQuivey, of research firm Forrester, thinks Amazon will soon give the Kindle away for free to encourage customers to keep buying content: “Tablets will become so cheap, the screens will get better, battery life will improve significantly and then e-readers will only be kept alive for sentimental reasons,” he said.
Fears that the sun is already setting on the e-reader market did not deter Financial Times owner Pearson from ploughing investment into the technology.
On Friday the UK publisher said it was paying £55.5m for a small stake in the company behind the Nook series of e-readers and tablets, which is part of US book chain Barnes & Noble. While the deal was well received, the US store hinted that book sales had not been so rosy there during the holiday season, warning investors that its sales had fallen short of expectations.
In this chaotic world, only the boldest would forecast the impact of the Random House–Penguin merger
The merger between two of the UK’s biggest publishing houses, Penguin and Random House, is expected to give them at least a quarter of the market in non-digital book sales. It won’t be quite enough to attract the scrutiny of the Office of Fair Trading but that doesn’t mean there’s no frisson of alarm in the already anxious publishing world. The consolidation will give Random House’s German owner, Bertelsmann, 53% of the joint business, to Penguin owner Pearson’s 47%. The question is whether it is a predatory strike – or a survival strategy that would free up cash to invest in the new territory of e-publishing.
On the surface the book trade is as tumultuous as the seas off New York. But there are some unexpected constants. In the first six months of this year, ebook sales grew by 188% over the previous January-June, but overall sales of non-digital books are declining only slowly. When a product is cheap and readily accessible, people really do buy more of it. So far, the most obvious victims of the revolution are the bookshops, which struggle to compete in either price or convenience with the e-tail market. But that’s not for want of trying. Innovative strategies proliferate: this week, the US bookstore chain Barnes & Noble launches its own e-reader, the Nook, in the UK to compete with various Kindles, Kobos and iPads. In May, Waterstones startled observers by climbing into bed with Amazon, which means that personal shoppers can now buy ebooks from Amazon courtesy of Waterstones’ internet connection, despite chief executive James Daunt’s earlier view that the online retail giant was a “ruthless moneymaking devil“.
In this chaotic world, only the boldest would forecast the impact of the Random House–Penguin merger. In more traditional times, reducing the number of big players in an industry and putting a significant share of the market in the hands of the new company would be interpreted as a direct attack on consumer choice. In a move that might hint at a little anxiety about the attentions of the OFT, both parties to the merger are insisting their imprints will maintain their distinctive identities, and deny talk of anything other than back-office cuts.
But the only obvious casualties are likely to be blockbuster authors and their agents, who may feel the impact of one fewer competitor in the small market for books that win heroic advances. It is unlikely to matter much to readers. The independent publishing sector, which has about 45% of the market, repeatedly shows that big isn’t necessarily best. The real change defining the relationship between writer and reader, and the one that may yet dynamite for ever the traditional business model, is self-publishing, which does away with publishers altogether.