In a letter to authors last week Hachette UK chief executive Tim Hely Hutchinson said that publishers are facing a gradual downturn in their business, despite last year's Fifty Shades of Grey bump across digital and print.
He wrote: "Over the longer term, I am afraid the picture is one of slow decline—in real terms adjusted for inflation—in combined e-book and print value sales, although current sales are holding steady."
Judging by two key events that have happened this week, he might be right. Yesterday The Bookseller reported on the culling of Sky Arts' "Book Show", hosted by Mariella Frostrup. Overnight we witnessed the departure of William Lynch, formerly chief executive of Barnes & Noble, and chief architect of its digital business, Nook.
The national conversation
The two might not seem connected, but what they show is a further shift away from traditional distribution methods for books, whether those were primarily marketing platforms or commercial ones, that promised to deliver a mass-market audience.
"Mariella's Book Show" was one of the few outlets left to talk about books on television: "The TV Book Club" was last broadcast in April 2012. Neither reached a huge audience, both had obvious flaws, and yet we should lament the passing all the same. Books should be part of the national conversation, and along with radio this can best be achieved on television.
The flaw in this argument is that the days of this 'national conversation' are passing by: people now watch mass-market television in lots of different ways, as the success of Netflix' home-grown dramas such as "House of Cards", and BBC's iPlayer demonstrate.
The audience is still there, it just doesn't gather round the TV set as it used to. In fact the audience is all over the place, and very definitely still engaging with content. It is, for example, already the case that if you want to hear popular books discussed by knowledgeable readers or commentators you'd be wise to download one of the many book podcasts, such as Litopia's "After Dark", or "Book Based Banter", or even a publisher podcast, such as HarperCollins' "BookD". If you want R4 upmarket, the Guardian Books podcast obliges.
It seems likely that from such professionally produced amateur operations better programmes will emerge, and will migrate naturally to video or web TV, meaning that more outlets, not fewer, will be broadcasting about books—albeit none to a mass audience (or even the size of audience delivered by Sky Arts).
Windows to the mass market
For similar reasons, we might also lament the passing of Lynch. Once seen as the saviour of B&N following the launch of the digital device the Nook, and the emergence of B&N as a competitor to Amazon in the digital reading space, he has latterly become its chief fall-guy. With digital sales growth slowing in the US, competition through Apple getting better, and the migration to tablets proving to be something of a double-edged sword for a reading business, it was clear for some time that Lynch was in the last chance saloon.
Yet all the same, there is little to celebrate in his ousting. US publishers might hope that with Lynch gone B&N will once again pay greater attention to its book stock and the look of that stock in stores, and become less distracted by its suffering digital wing. But despite the slowdown in the rate of growth, digital sales will continue to take a greater share of book business going forwards, and this is likely to broaden into areas so far under-performing, namely children's and non-fiction.
B&N says its strategy is under review, and though we may see a retrenchment at B&N (and perhaps even a positive one for its bookshops) we are unlikely to see a re-emergence of the chain as the great content company it once was. As Mike Shatzkin told the New York Times "Nobody’s going to bring back a robust brick-and-mortar book business."
This means that US publishers may have to begin to think of a world without this massive distribution engine supporting their new releases. The huge showrooms that were so much part of the B&N offer look like a relic from the past likely to be replaced, at best, by more curated stores that display fewer titles better.
This all sounds Hely Hutchinson-bleak. The windows to the mass market are fading faster than Novak Djokovic on Centre Court. But there is another way of looking at this.
The new mass-marketing platforms are Facebook and Twitter, and to a smaller degree Goodreads. And the numbers are massive, 1bn for Facebook, 19m on Goodreads. But they simply don't operate the way TV used to do, or the way a scaleable retailer with 2,000 stores once could. What those platforms offer instead is access to smaller more engaged audiences—but a lot of them.
One would think this would be meat and drink to publishers, who are used to operating in niches. Yet their traditional approach has been through mass-marketing. Adverts in national newspapers, reviews, interviews, serialisations etc. There is clearly still room for this, but in a world where the audience is moving and splintering online around a multitude of interests, where newspapers and broadcasters are cutting their coverage of books, and where mass distribution outlets are challenged economically, they will need to think differently.
At The Bookseller's Marketing and Publicity Conference today, we heard a little bit about how this was already happening. Mills & Boon's Tara Benson talked about taking the marketing to where the community was, away from "our backyard to where they are". Simon Scott, co-owner of Push Entertainment, spoke about the cumulative effect of getting a small number of things right.
Everybody remembers the big campaigns, he said, but everything that becomes large, started small, "it just means you got it right". For the History Press, their award-winning Titantic campaign started with a tweet.
Both Facebook and Goodreads spoke about using their services as discoverability engines, using the platforms to coalesce audiences around particular types of content, or using the tools on offer to target specific communities: posts for Facebook's 'newsfeed' for example can be geo-targeted. Or as Chris McVeigh said, marketing can be staggered to maintain momentum.
This is perhaps why self-published writers have managed to outmaneuver bigger players: their marketing activity has been specific and targeted because they had no option—it just happens to fit the new world.
The trends we see this week in the loss of Sky Arts' "Book Show", and the departure of Lynch from B&N, are unlikely to be reversed any time soon. Online audiences are bigger, but they are more picky, disparate, time-challenged and distractible. They are always just a click, a poke, a like, a tweet away from something else.
I don't necessarily see this as leading to a decline: if book people can get this right, the opportunity to deliver their content or their messages around that content to targeted communities (around the world) remains huge. You can even still reach a mass market. But as we are learning today, this all requires a different set of skills.
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