Book publishing has rarely had two better years than during the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, all things considered, he’s rarely had a better decade.
I base this bold, perhaps surprising analysis on the latest figures from the UK Publishers Association, which show sales of books, journals and rights rose 5% in 2021, ending the year on a record high. £6.7 billion. This 5% figure builds on the 2% growth reported for 2020, and the result means the publication of exits from the crisis is almost half a billion pounds more than it was. before the first lock. For those who need a longer term perspective, the stats are even better. In 2011, the big number was less than £4 billion, which means, if you think the two figures put together broadly on a like-for-like basis, UK publishing has still halved in a decade. Along with growth, change has also been a constant: exports account for more than half of that total number, and it’s likely that digital will soon overtake print.
However, it would be wrong to over-sentimentalise the print or the UK. In real terms, the numbers show an industry managing an orderly transition in an often turbulent market
In 2021, the AP report highlights the continued resilience of the consumer sector and print book sales during a period when high street bookstores were not always open. In 2021, print sales grew another 5% on top of the 4% growth seen a year earlier (with exports up 10%). Sector-wise, sales of fiction books (all formats) reached £733m in 2021, a figure we would hardly have imagined ten years ago when they stood at £562m. pounds and worried about digital annihilation; ditto for children, now at £425m, up from £314m in 2011. Non-fiction, which was slow in 2021 at £1.1bn, has been a juggernaut over the past 10 years, having increased by £300 million. It’s worth thinking about the print figures, with consumer print sales now at £1.8bn, up from £1.6bn in 2011, out of a total of £3.5bn sterling (compared to £3 billion in 2011). Not bad for a format that has been delisted multiple times over the past decade.
However, it would be wrong to over-sentimentalise the print or the UK. In real terms, the figures show an industry managing an orderly transition in an often turbulent market, with exports providing the real fuel (rising from £1.4bn, not including journals, to £3.8bn now ), and the digital spark, having multiplied by ten since 2011.
Digital has been the hardest to track, with much written about the growth and then decline of consumer e-book sales (not counting Amazon or self-publishers), and too little about the continued rise of audio downloads. . However, the significant shift of the pandemic has been in education in the UK, where a quarter of total UK sales are now in digital format (compared to 10% overseas). In the academic field, digital is now three times more important than print, a success still mainly driven by journals, of course.
However, perhaps the biggest change is less in format than in mindset. While publishers were once content to allow others to manage the market and foster their primary routes to consumers, it is clear that as their market power has grown, so has their willingness to actively intervene. They own the future now – Amazon, notwithstanding.