It’s good to be back
Hello and welcome to my new blog. I’ve been away for a while, but I’m back with a relaunched site that will continue to provide a reality check about publishing as well as reviews of books for toddlers (Babster’s Books) and life as the surrendered wife of a Frenchman (if you read Madame Perrier, you’ll understand why the ‘surrendered’ part of that is not entirely true). You will also find an archive of my articles.
I gave up blogging 18 months ago because, to be frank, after five years the site needed more than a refresh, it needed a complete facelift. I took time to consider my vision for the site and how to integrate the lively interaction I have in other social media – notably Twitter and Facebook – with a site I hope is a resource to readers and writers. Thanks to Jon Reed of Reed Media my vision has been realised.
Publishing is notoriously conservative, the speed of change slower than a Number 12 bus round the Elephant & Castle. But not in the past year. When I stopped blogging, ebooks looked far from a tipping point, and, some predicted, nor would they as long as you couldn’t read one in the bath. Beside discovering that a zip lock bag will keep the water out, what changed everything was a brilliant piece of spin by Amazon, a company whose PR genius is as dangerous to rivals as its technical skill.
The spin was a press release put out in July 2010 stating that ebooks for Amazon’s new Kindle digital reader were outselling hardcover books in the US. The press release was reported on both sides of the Atlantic with barely any analysis and much generalisation.
The PR stated that on the online retailer’s US site, sales of digital books had outstripped sales of hardcovers by 143 to 100 in the second quarter of the year. Undoubtedly true, but across the media, headlines implied Amazon had with one blow killed the hardback. The stories beneath these headlines were barely any better, for the large part quoting sexy percentage rises rather than actual unit or value sales and, worse, quoting them as if they represented the entire US book market not Amazon’s share or site traffic.
This flat earth journalism helped create a sense that digital distribution of books had finally tipped over, and, as often happens with media hype, the story fulfilled itself as readers unwilling to be left behind, aided by falling device prices, rushed out to buy ereaders. Speaking with publishers last summer, all reported an upsurge in digital sales of hundreds of percentage points since the story broke. Amazon could not have asked for more.
But did you see what I did there? I quoted the percentage rise in sales, not the actual percentage share of publishers’ turnover. True digital sales escalated, but they still only represented 8% of these publishers’ monthly turnover. Hardly the death of paper and board. Similar statistical jiggery pokery – willful or otherwise – marked the use of Amazon’s press release by those in search of a story rather than the truth.
The American Publishers Association has some interesting statistics about sales of hardback and digital book formats in 2010. Though sales of trade (the kind of books you would find in Barnes & Noble) hardbacks remained flat, up a mere 0.9% between 2007 and 2010, they still totaled $5.26bn (£3.4bn), bigger than the entire 2010 market for consumer books in the UK (£3.115m, since you ask). US hardbacks were declining in market share, but they still represented 37.7%, or 603 milion units, which is an awful lot of Twilight.
In contrast, the APA, while acknowledging a huge surge in demand for ebooks and ‘other non-physical formats’ (that is apps and audio to you and me), found their share of the market had grown to only 6.4% by 2010, up from 0.6% in 2008. Yes that does equate to a nice juicy headline grabbing percentage increase of 1274.1%, but that is only net revenue of $878m (£567.41m), far lower than the contributions of hardbacks or the $6.55bn (£4.24bn) contributed by softbacks and paperbacks.
This is not a rant against a revolutionary format. I am a proud owner of a Kindle - a Christmas present from Le Bloke. It is easy to read, easy to navigate, light and, if I may say, in it’s leather jacket, a little bit cool – even when read by middle aged commuters on the red eye to King’s Cross. When author Susan Hill berated me for loving a device that threatens the jobs of print workers around the globe, I did feel sad. But I won’t be smashing Kindle screens any time soon. The momentum for digital is unstoppable. But that does not mean it will destroy print either.
No, what upsets me is that, because no one can be bothered to check figures found in two seconds through Google, PR spin is reported as fact. I mean, if we can get it this wrong reporting publishing, and thus escalating revolutionary change, what on earth could happen if the search for headlines obliterated the facts about something more fundamental, the economy say? Oh.
© Danuta Kean 2012