Sainsbury’s and Anobii

I’ve written a column for The Bookseller on Sainsbury’s acquisition of the majority of the Anobii business from HMV – you can read it here:

To read more on the background to the deal, click here.

US eBook sales race past 20% of publishers’ revenues

I’ve just tweeted these stories, but my jaw is still hanging loosely from its hinges, so I thought I’d better provide the links here:

Over 20 percent of Random House US sales are digital

Over 20 percent of Hachette’s US sales are e-books

Both stories come from, which also reports that Simon & Schuster is at 15% in the US, HarperCollins 12%, and Penguin worldwide 14%.  Not evolution, but revolution

EBooks in excelsis – but what to buy?

Whaam!  Random House UK has released Q1 figures, showing that sales of eBooks under its imprints have increased ten-fold since the same quarter last year.  RHUK has sold 2m eBooks in total, and the category now delivers 8% of total group sales, with customers of all the key genres (and thus, one assumes, a broad spread by age, sex and location) participating pretty much equally.

It looks as though the UK is running along nicely in the US’s wake, in which case what odds would you give against the UK Q1 2012?  Simon & Schuster has just reported its global (largely US) Q1 numbers, and eBooks represented a whoppping 18% of total sales.

I am still not wholly clear how all of this is being marketed, save through a carefully nuanced focus on “if you liked this, you’ll love that” – shades of the Book Army.  Something that I find extraordinary is that, having personally exited day-by-day involvement in the book trade, I no longer have much clue about what books are being published, and when.  This is despite:

  • Keeping up to speed with The Bookseller
  • Registering for all the publisher Twitter accounts I can find
  • Visiting bookshops a couple of times each week (more if I have a project on)
  • Living in London and making full use of the tube network (if there’s a poster campaign, that’s where it will be)
  • Reading the “quality” press and studying the book reveiws at the weekend

Most of the time, my book trade synapses are doing their stuff – but every trip to a bookshop finds another cluster of surprises – I didn’t know this this was being published, I had no idea that was available in paperback, etc.  So, although I am bright and alert, the marketing is failing to get through to me as effectively as I might wish.

A couple of weeks ago, Waterstone’s manager Martin Latham wrote a thoughtful piece for the Bookseller about paperback availability, noting that – as booksellers have long decried – most of the marketing and publicity surrounding a book takes place many months before the edition that public might actually buy (ie the paperback), is published.  Even Booker prizewinners and acclaimed debuts just slide surreptitiously into the stores, leaving the punter in the bookshop staring at titles and trying to remember which one he’d mentally clocked nine months earlier when Claire Armistead or Erica Wagner was so keen to draw it to his attention.

If it’s hard to know when physical books are published, how much harder will it be to find out, once eBooks are the dominant format?  The answer, I guess, lies in sophisticated marketing program(me)s, wherein the customer can supply a list of her interests and favourite authors, and can perhaps allow some Big Brother app to assess her Google traffic and Twitter follows (“says she likes George Eliot, but seems to spend more time thinking about Angelina Jolie”).  Recommendations (aka adverts) will duly follow.

But if you’ve never read a hard-to-pigeonhole author like Howard Jacobson or Margaret Atwood, let alone identified an up-and-coming author whose first novel gets passing coverage at best, and the showrooms (bookshops) have dwindled and closed (yes, I know I’ve made this point before), how in the eWorld are you going to find them in the future?  I keep asking publihers this question.  Either there is a brilliant (but currently top secret) plan in the works, or they don’t really seem to know.  Marketing Lee Child or James Patterson to eBook customers probably isn’t too difficult.  Breaking this decade’s Longitude or Eats Shoots and Leaves, or getting traction around the Costa First Novel shortlist, is going to be more challenging.

Vintage and Modern

Back in my salad days, it was a truth universally acknowledged that intellect was demonstrated by a wall of orange spines, interspersed with the odd bright blue (for the dessication of the mind), green (sheer escapism), red (urgent! now!) and, of course, that curious putty colour (I have a very fine mind).  All of this placed the owner many social cuts above a shelf of Coronets, NELs or Spheres, and was infinitely preferable to a row of Heron Classics, uxoriously bound in leather-look Skivertex.

And now, the putty series is celebrating its half century – Penguin Modern Classics are 50 years old. They’ve gone through a few changes, of course:

Angry and young:

Classic Mod Classic:

Loss of nerve:

Turquoisely worthy:


And now…

When Penguin owned the serious paperback, Modern Classic-hood was an honour carefully bestowed.  Animal Farm, not Coming Up For Air. The Loved One, not Brideshead.  I discovered some extraordinary books by the likes of Nigel Dennis and Edward Upward; I waded through Aldous Huxley, and lost patience with Sartre.

Two changes stand out now. The first is that the range is more catholic – Ian Fleming and Geoffrey Willans certainly weren’t PMC in my day (though I love them both – molesworth could be my desert island book).  And an author’s backlist tends to go 100% PMC now – Orwell, Waugh, and indeed Fleming. I rather liked Penguin knowing what was good for me – and I’ll embrace From Russia With Love as a PMC, but The Spy Who Loved Me?  Come on now.

The second change, of course, is that Penguin long ago lost first dibs on paperback publishing. Natural PMCs like Greene, Murdoch and Hemingway sit within the Random House empire, with other PMC-type authors/estates are looked after at their hardback homes – Don DeLillo at Picador, JG Farrell at Orion, Ray Bradbury at HarperCollins, and so on.

Only Random House has a challenging series, in Vintage Classics, which mixes out-of-copyright titles (because the world needs as many versions as possible of Pride & Prejudice, otherwise where would hacks find their hackneyed opening sentences) with their contracted authors.  The covers are handsome, though the design tic of giving only the author’s surname irritates me irrationally.  I got quite excited when I saw this, and thought it was a new F Scott collection…

…but it’s Zelda.

I like my classics well-managed, with a good preface and notes.  I like the reassurance of having bought a “good” edition – perhaps this is a meaningless luxury, but book-buying isn’t all about rational decision-making.  Over the years, I’ve bought quite a few second-hand Folio editions, which are always nice to have around, and a clutch of Everymans, but both selections are eclectic.

How will all of this classicality translate into eBooks, aside from the loss of the instantly identifiable cover poking out of the young man’s duffle coat pocket (or whatever love-lorn young men wear in 2011)?  I’ve written before about how depressing free classics are; but a consistent series of intelligently priced eBook classics would be an attractive thing.  Perhaps the spirit of old Everyman could be invoked again, with a series that transcends imprint, and allows the 20th century canon to browsed, bought and enjoyed as a coherent list, so that Orwell, Greene, Huxley and Hamilton can be together once again.