Reflections from the week of London Book Fair

After a hectically busy week, everybody has shared their comments and thoughts on LBF.  I picked up a few quotes and ideas, which I’ve shared on an accompanying post, but for me, Earls Court looked like a strategic point of change.

The publishers loved it – the ash cloud had clobbered LBF 2010, so this was the first full-scale shindig for two years.  The agents loved it – there were plenty of deals being done.  The futurists loved it – there was much bold talk and real commitment to the digital future.  Amazon (retailer or publisher? – discuss) had a team roaming the aisles.  But the outlook for the few bricks and mortar retailers and librarians who were present was much more September than May.

During the fair itself, the BRC published the worst retail like-for-likes since polling began, 16 years ago.  Yesterday, Nielsen Bookscan reported that March (printed) book sales were down 8.7% on the prior year – a horrific number.  There has been much faffing about the weather, but in a month that kicked off with World Book Day/Night, a season of BBC TV book programming, and a slew of awards announcements, this is a chronic performance.  And although there’s no break-out available by retailer or sector, I’ll speculatively bet that saw sales of physical books increase year-on-year, with the high street down 10%+.

The scale and profile of eBook sales of course remain something of a mystery, but Nielsen has the matter in hand – the sooner the trade understands whether print + digital is a larger or smaller market than pure print was Before The Fall, the better.

WH Smith pulled the same rabbit out of their hat as we’ve all become used to seeing – sales down, profits up.  The WHS customer experience is now utterly commoditised and throughly efficient – a trubute to focusing ruthlessly on the bottom line.  Remarkably, the press is still printing their “decline of multimedia” rationale for negative sales.  Hmm.  I bet WHS aren’t selling as many typewriter ribbons as they used to; or as much Basildon Bond.

Meanwhile, Nick Bubb at Arden Partners gave HMV a good kicking, bringing his profit forecast for the year down to £26m.  With HMV’s financial year ending this month, I expect we’ll be seeing pre-close briefings – and announcements? – before April is out.