How is the business of books doing? A call to better share data and insights.
January 16, 2018 by ruediger

How is the book business doing? Throughout the industry, this is a popular question around this time of the year. Particularly in non-English language markets, I am often puzzled by the creativity in most answers, to avoid controversy, and find a good ending to any story around the thorny issue.

When the Federation of European Publishers, FEP, released their newest report, we learn, for instance, that the decline of the British pound sterling, and not publishers’ performance, must be singled out as a main culprit for what is at least a mixed bag of European publishing developments.

I certainly do not want to blame FEP’s tireless data man for the statement. Over a good decade, he has spent a lot of time and effort, especially behind the scenes, to convince the organization’s members to produce useful numbers where hitherto, we had mostly white noise.

But even by FEP’s own numbers, when put into a more thorough perspective and context, tell a grimmer story indeed. As soon as inflation is factored in, which is certainly an uncontested economic standard practice, the total European publishing market has lost significant value, and continuously so, over the past decade. During the same period, total title output has continued to grow. Therefore, the average print run, and hence publishers’ average income must have taken quite a blow. Such dire conclusions are often omitted, though. (For details, see our “How Big Is Publishing” report at www.bookmap.org )

Total publishing revenue development, versus title output, in all of Europe, plus in Germany and France, 2008 to 2016. FEP data; analysis for “How Big Is Publishing”, www.bookmap.org .

It is correct that the largest – and best documented – markets, like Germany, have resisted relatively well so far. Still, in 2016 and 2017, even Germany has seen a continuous net decline for two consecutive years. No big cataclysm has occurred, at least among publishers. Retail is a different story altogether, in Germany and in most other markets.

What about the weaker markets? Not only crisis hit Spain, or Italy. How about Central and Eastern Europe? Belgium? Even for Austria, we lack concrete figures now for quite some time. We are not given any details here.

I do not put my finger on the vulnerable spots out of some freakish pleasure about the negative trend lines, not at all. But as an industry in full transformation, we better look at the facts, and for doing so, we better get ready to bring the full information into the open.

A few hints, which are familiar tunes to most observers.

Book publishing has, across the board, strongly suffered from the crisis of 2008, and its aftermath. In most non-English markets, these shock waves have not been understood in their entirety.

What used to be a largely coherent market segment, consumer books, has become highly fragmented. The competitive landscape has changed. Self-publishing is a factor. Amazon is not just a key account, but a direct competitor in both food chain, and innovative business models.

Most of all, anyone stuck in an old silo thinking – ‘my niche has not changed, I had a good year!’ – will miss critical insights from what is going on outside of their respective silo. No-one can afford such a limited horizon in their view on the world.

Therefore, data, and maps, are critical.

This said, I need to add a complaint: It’s been a while since I attended my last conference session, or private workshop, with speakers from different data organizations comparing their insights and notes. If I add to this wish list, to also have in the room people who know about other content industries, not just books – I cannot even recall when such a debate has taken place.

So this being a New Year, here is my resolution: Start talking to each and every one, to share numbers, and to not be shy to also include the unpleasant stuff.

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