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.

Aperçus from Earls Court

Here are statements, thoughts and ideas I picked up, or had for myself, in the course of a couple of days at Earls Court and elsewhere.  “Quotes” aren’t direct (I don’t have shorthand), so I’m typically sharing the idea, and garnering it with responses of my own.

At the Chairman’s Breakfast:

  • Mikhail Shvydkoy (Russian Special Representative for Culture/Ambassador at Large):  We are living in a world that has a great deal of information, but our understanding is diminishing.   But the nature of plentiful information is that you can always find justification for your own thoughts and beliefs online, and ignore/dismiss opposing views.  Artists help us to interpret this overload of information.  Artists are bricks in a bridge to understanding.
  • Natalya Solzhenitsyn:  Charles Dickens is the best chronicler of life in Russia at the start of the 21st century.
  • Natalya Solzhenitsyn:  Young Russians want foreign travel, consumer goods and rock & roll – and a strong, even Stalinist, leader, to ensure order.
At the Russian Book Market overview:
  • Oleg Novikov (Eksmo):  Top Kniga (Russia’s largest bookstore chain) has shrunk from 700 to 450 stores.  Mr Novikov believes Top Kniga will go bankrupt.
  • Yuri Deikalo (AST): 30-50% of readers at Russian stations and airports are reading tablets/eReaders, with the rest reading books, newspapers and magazines
At the “Great Debate” – Will Publishers Soon Be Irrelevant:
This was a nonsensical motion, as the publishing process will clearly evolve and continue, as all four panellists agreed.  It was a pity that Doctorow/Bridle appeared to be so much younger than Franklin/Charkin – a more balanced debate might have had youth/enthusiasm and age/experience represented on both sides.  And perhaps a woman or two.
Andrew Franklin was great fun, and James Bridle was a powerful speaker, but a clear consensus existed betwwen the four speakers – that publishing has a future role, but must evolve swiftly and intelligently – was shared across the platform.
At the CEOs’ Keynote – Digital Revolution or Digital Evolution:
  • John Makinson (Penguin): It doesn’t feel very evolutionary when I come into the office [it feels revolutionary].
  • YS Chi (IPA/Elsevier): Revolution is sexy, but in revolution the incumbents are toast.
  • John Makinson:  We used to say – that looks like a £25 book.  Now [selling digital content direct to the customer] we have to consider what the end consumer will be prepared to pay.  [Hmm – publishers forced to consider the edn-users – can’t be a wholly bad thing.]
  • John Makinson:  We are seeing in the US that the ebook may completely displace the mass-market paperback, price and convenience.  [Subsequent sales data has confirmed that this is already happening.]
  • Brian Murray (HarperCollins):  One year ago, there were 15m eReaders.  Today there are 40m.  [Plus the number of tablet computers has exploded too.]  Many heavy eReader users no longer visit bookstores.
  • Brian Murray;  The conversion of avid readers to ebooks in US has swiftly precipitated digital tipping point [faster than expected].
  • John Makinson:  Google employs 500 people to lobby/liaise with governments around world.  [And the total number employed by publishers is…?]
  • John Makinson:   The biggest driver of sales growth is new routes to market.  [But what happens to the overall market when existing routes shut down or shrink?]
Finally, back on Earth again, the Books in Public Libraries seminar with lobbyist Tim Coates and author Alan Gibbons:
  • Gibbons:  South Korea is building over 100 new libraries.  South Korea has the highest levels of literacy in the world; in the UK, we are tumbling compared to other nations.
  • Gibbons:   Spending on children’s books constitutes just 1% of total library spending.
  • Coates:  Brent Council could cut spending on unnecessary bureaucracy within the library service.  Instead, they are closing down half their branch libraries.

Russia – where the book is still revered

Here’s a piece that I wrote for Publishing Perspectives about the book market in Moscow.  It was published in their London Book Fair supplement, which is full of good things; my piece is on page 15.

House of Books, Arbat

Moscow Trading Book House


All images from the bookstores’ own websites

Friday Charivaria II: Book trade health debate, Russians etc

Books and eReaders, part 94 already

Another Friday, another digest.

The level of global debate on the direction of the book trade, and the impact of digitisation, seems to be unfolding by the hour, not merely the day.  So, for your weekend reading, I’ve attached a few links, as follows:

First up, a long piece from USA Today, which kicks off in an upstate New York family bookstore, and then rolls out across the nation to consider the future of physical bookselling:

Next, Book Marketing Ltd has released a rather startling piece of research which indicates that there might now be 3.5 million Kindle owners in the UK.  This sounds a little excessive – but here’s the story in the Bookseller:

At this point, the medication starts to kick in, and McSweeney’s boldly predicts a robust future for the physical book market:

Some of the stats in that piece are a little… old.  Jane Friedman dissects them here:

One more:

I’m devouring this stuff for a presentation I have to make on Monday – all hard facts gratefully accepted at this address (see contact details by clicking on About in the top right corner of this page).

Anyway, I alluded earlier this week to the iRex Iliad, the first eReader to be sold in the UK.  Remarkably, I have unearthed film of its very first appearance in London.  You can see it in the clip below – the Iliad comes into view just after 3:50.

The Russians are coming

Coming to the London Book Fair in April, that is, as this year’s Market Focus (  Parties are touring the established, well-known stores, but I’ve been asked to recommend other shops to visit.  Picking out LRB and Daunt was easy, and I’ve also pointed them in the direction of Under the Greenwood Tree, the great new children’s book/toy shop on Clapham Common.

Your suggestions would be appreciated.  Only rule is that they need to be easily reached by tube or (at a pinch) a suburban train.  Look forward to hearing from you.

Enjoy your weekend.

I am reading: Short Stories – F Scott Fitzgerald (Penguin)

I am listening to: Brahms Deutsches Requiem – John Eliot Gardner (Philips)

I am watching: Some great little book programmes on BBC Four.  The interviews with Woolf, Huxley, Greene, Waugh etc that went out in the middle of the night on Monday were particularly good.  Apparently the BBC wiped every last minute of any programming featuring George Orwell…