By Darren E Laws
So Christmas came and went and all the retail outlets are returning sales figures and stats. While it’s still too early to call it is clear that the book buying public have stayed true to form in purchasing the most popular title of the year during the festive season. The honour going to Dan Brown for ‘The Lost Symbol’ as the book most people found in their Christmas stocking. The bad news is that this title only sold 58,468 copies in the week to Saturday 19th December; this is nearly ⅓ of the titles sold to last year’s biggest seller.
Meanwhile the public appetite for ‘celebrity’ named driven titles seems to drive on with seemingly unabated hunger which is almost as depressing as the dip in sales, the closure of bookstores and the failure of publishing houses to grab the bull by the horns and stop supplying supermarkets with titles at prices which make a mockery of recommended retail prices.
We are moving into a year which may make 2009 seem like a golden year. VAT increases next week, while this won’t have as big an effect on the book trade as other areas it will still impact greatly because anything which reduces consumer spending ability will impact on non-essential purchasing and books, when all is said and done, are non-essential in the grand scheme of putting food on plates and people worrying about remaining in employment.
So why does the industry keep churning out titles using the same business model which had led us to this point? On the 24th December, Borders UK closed its doors along with a number of other industry related companies who have struggled all year against an economic tide which has become a veritable tsunami. Like Border UK some of these companies may not reopen come the New Year. The fault does not lay with the bookstores that are unable to compete with 40 heavily discounted top fiction and non-fiction titles residing in the crop of supermarkets which have had such an impact on the industry but with the business model employed by the major publishing houses who rely on a false turnover of income with titles printed by the thousands and shipped back and forth to bookstores, remainder shops and supermarkets. The fault lies squarely on the shoulders of these publishing houses that are prepared to give away their titles to supermarkets and then complain about the declining state of the industry.
The more publishing feeds supermarkets even with this substantially reduced list of titles the less the consumer will care to venture into book stores and search the thousands of titles available, especially as these stores simply cannot compete on price.
Many people who wake up with Dan Brown this year may not see the supermarket sticker that has been removed. I’m all for fair competition and do not blame the supermarkets for wanting to give a bargain to their customers, but I do squarely lay the blame at the feet of the publishers that continue to readily supply titles at a pittance at the cost of the industry, the author and the vital lifeline to that industry and to the consumer...the book store.
For smaller publishers who do not totally rely on selling thousands of copies through an ever decreasing base of book stores but are learning to embrace new digital platforms, there may be solace, but the bell is tolling for many major publishers and I am sure that we are going to hear a resounding chime that will reverberate through the industry that will shake the industry to its core in 2010.
The question is: Who is the bell tolling for?