I’ve never really understood why we have to keep speculating on the state of our industry on a monthly or even weekly basis. Sales go up; sales go down. An annual review would surely suffice, and one might want to argue that long term trends might not be clear until several years’ data were considered.

Susan Lulgjuraj has a story at TeleRead about the Data Guy’s explanation of why print book sales are up for the third year running. Why can’t people just leave this alone? Didn’t we emerge from a recession just recently? Why does an increase in print sales need to be explained away? I suspect it’s really because this phenomenon is so contrary to the comentariat’s confident, even arrogant predictions that traditional publishing, with its alleged Luddite attachment to the print model, was going under in a flood of self-published e-books. Apparently the explanation for the print recovery is that Amazon is no longer allowed to discount e-books, so that in their insane drive to give away margin they have started discounting print books more deeply than ever before!

The article prods us “What about the non-traditionally published books? Consumers spend $1.25 BILLION on these, which equates to about 300 million units. The majority are indie ebooks with an average price around $2.99.” The Italic Caps are presumably the equivalent of scare quotes, and incautious readers might well be expected to shake their head and mutter “I knew it. Just look at this huge number. Publishing’s dead.” However as the AAP reveals here, the U.S. publishing industry had revenue of $27.8 billion in 2015 with an average price around $10.23. This is a little down from 2014’s number, which can be found in this report. It’s great that self publishing is doing so well. As I’ve argued before though this has little to do with traditional publishing — it’s a totally different business which has hardly anything in common with the traditional publishing business beyond a similarity of product. It’s rather like cinema/theatre, motor car/railway, natural gas/oil, nuclear/wind power.

Nielsen-book-salesNielsen presented some statistics at BEA in Chicago last May. Publishing Perspectives shows a few of their slides. This one showing the overall book market 2004-2015 shows an industry far from crisis. Whatever the units down the left hand side are,* they have to be calculated on a different basis than the AAP’s numbers. They do include self-published books, though I’m not sure that they also include self published books which do not have an ISBN. (Non-ISBN books according to Ms. Lulgjuraj represent 43% of e-book sales, 24% of all book sales! One wonders how accurate the Data Guy’s numbers are on this. Better than anyone else’s no doubt except perhaps Amazon, and they’re not telling.)

I was speaking recently to a long-time book editor who was moaning about how hard it is to sell books nowadays. A history book that used to sell 5,000 copies now only sells 2,000, she said. And this is true: indeed high-level monographs may sell in the low hundreds now rather than being able to break the 1,000 barrier as they would twenty or thirty years ago. Some of this (all of it?) may be explained by the evolution of academic disciplines. Of necessity disciplines break down into smaller and smaller specialized categories over time. Isaac Newton could address natural philosophers: now he’d be addressing a tiny specialist sub-discipline of physics. In general though we publish many more books, and we have been wildly successful in bringing down the costs of making them. Most university presses are getting by. Things are hard of course, but ever since the 1960s really things have been being hard for university presses. Given all the dire predictions, the rate of closure of university presses has been amazingly slow: indeed The University of Bristol’s Press has just been established.

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* See also Myths about myths.

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