Trade publishing update

June 2024 


The IPG’s trade publishing correspondent Will Atkinson explores issues including publishing’s profile, fiction and non-fiction trends, Amazon and female representation

There has been a lot going on. Normally I have to get one of my hobby horses out of the stable and ride it to the finish, but there’s no need for that this month! Prepare yourselves for some proper reporting of facts, events and analysis.

Publishing’s sales and profile

First up—UK publishing revenue grew by 3% to more than £7bn last year, with a wider contribution to the national economy of £11bn. How relevant this is to us trying to get our books into Waterstones, pay the staff and keep our authors happy is somewhat moot. It’s good, of course, but what does it actually mean? 

For context, let’s look at our friends in the adjacent creative industries. Magazine publishing sales are £4bn. Music, which always surprises me, can only manage £1.43bn of recorded music revenue in the UK, but makes an economic contribution of £6.7bn—still less than two thirds of book publishing. The numbers for film aren’t easy to categorise, but film production—including big TV series, so making of Game of Thrones is in there—is at £6.7bn. 

So, we are the biggest in our immediate family. But do we get more attention, have the biggest voice, the highest profile and the most government influence? We have very good trade bodies, but somehow we remain under-confident and opaque to the outside world. 

The General Election and serious non-fiction

I live in hope that a Labour government might approach the creative sector with more than the usual patronising pat on the head and being told we are marvellous. Being put front and centre of a strategic vision for the economy would be genuinely exciting and would play to the nation’s strengths. I guess Labour can be trusted on copyright and AI regulation, but will they invest where we need them to in the long-term—in humanities education and libraries?  

Looking over at our US cousins, elections seem to play utter havoc with their publishing schedules. I remember swathes of US-originated books being moved from Autumn 2016 to Spring 2017, blocking us from publishing certain titles and compromising our Autumn schedule. This happened to a lesser extent in Autumn 2020. You would have thought that US publishers would have worked out that there is an election every four years by now, and planned accordingly. In contrast, we will have to move a few books and some publishers might avoid 4 July, despite it being the first Thursday of the month.   

The few books being moved are the political ones, which makes sense, and in future more than a few titles may need to be moved. Headline is the latest of the highly commercial corporate divisions to don a ‘serious,’ ‘intelligent,’ ‘high quality’ or ‘upmarket’ non-fiction imprint, Headline Press. All major publishers have now got one such, with their expert voices, biggest questions, bold new ideas, distinctive perspectives, and thought-provoking books that challenge and inspire. 

I don’t mind, really, but this space is not infinite, Research into the reading demographic may well point to a larger, older, serious-minded constituency, but I don’t think it will expand as quickly as required for these big houses. Whilst it may look lovely from the outside, there is plenty of attrition in this space. A big advance, backed up by a big marketing budget, isn’t always going to work, and that is what internally drives much of corporate publishing. Meanwhile, projects that would have come to independents will now be corporate ones. Once the P&Ls have been done in five years’ time the elephants will move on to pastures new, and it will be up to the more serious-minded imprints and independents to pick up the pieces. 

Fiction trends

Fiction somehow seems a more malleable space. I am enjoying the growth of ‘healing fiction’ with an ‘emotional core’ coming out of Japan and Korea. We appear to be in a post-xenophobic reading phase. Courtesy of the Smithsonian magazine I learned that ‘Cats are everywhere in Japan. While it is easy to see they are well-loved, Japan also fears cats. The country has a long, often terrifying history of folklore involving monstrous supernatural cats.’

I was also intrigued by the growth and new found respectability of fan-fiction. This is a TikTok phenomenon, but existed in good numbers online before the platform started. As The Bookseller recently noted, authors including Ali Hazelwood and Olivie Blake began as fan-fiction writers. “The traditional publication of fan fiction-based books, and their popularity on BookTok, [has] given fanfiction a sense of credibility”, wrote Busayo. “The platform shone a light on what readers loved… and helped industry professionals to see how they could capitalise on it.” So, for instant riches, find two successful Japanese cat books and then commission a TikToker to write a mashup narrative of the two cats on adventures, Hermione Granger-stylie. Who said publishing was complicated? 

Digital Market Competition and Consumers Bill and competition

Right: acronym time. The Digital Market Competition and Consumers Bill (DMCC) got through parliament without any watering down from the tech lobby. Well done to the PA, IPG and BA. For those who haven’t time to read the 362 pages of the bill, it’s basically toughening up the role of the Competition and Market Authority (CMA), so that large tech organisations have to curb any anti-competitive behaviour. There will be bespoke conversations and arrangements with companies of Strategic Market Status (SMS). This will be done by the Digital Market Unit, (DMU) an organization already working within the CMA. If you want to know more… this is good enough.

Once you have digested the acronyms, the thing to remember is that this law is designed to protect consumers in a very traditional anti-competitive legal way; the new bit being that the law insists on government setting protocols with SMS companies and they can be monitored by government accordingly. If the authority has teeth and performs properly, this will work. Fair play to the government. We worried post-Brexit that they wouldn’t have the same appetite for regulation as Europe. Remember, this bill is not about copyright and IP.   

I am reminded of the Amazon ebook contract that I needed to sign in order to join Kindle, which, quite frankly, should have had me going to jail for collusion, let alone the two Amazon lawyers who came to the meeting. It was a shocker, essentially insisting that any promotions and pricing that we ran with any other company selling ebooks had to be given to Amazon too. Even with my amateur grasp of the law, I knew it was illegal. My (only) lawyer suggested we write an affidavit outlining the necessity of signing the Kindle document for the good of the company. I think it is probably still in her files. 

Amazon carried on its merry way, seeing off Sony and Bertelsmann, and reducing Apple and Kobo to bit players in the ebook market. These are not small companies. When the Directorate-General for Competition for the EU finally came a calling, Amazon ‘voluntarily agreed’ to cease these practices and undertake a review in five years’ time—a date that has now lapsed. The EU didn’t go after them because it was going to be too expensive and would probably have taken five years anyway. Game, set and match to Amazon. 

Amazon in Ireland 

The news that Amazon is moving into Ireland came as no surprise. We have lived with it since 1998, so it was bound to get round to our neighbours eventually. The effect of Amazon on publishers in the UK has probably been positive, especially for smaller publishers. It has come with some very big downsides, most notably the closure of many independent bookshops and Waterstones being on the back foot for many years. Bookselling in this country has got much better since Amazon’s arrival because it had to, but there was much pain along the way. The level playing field that Amazon offers smaller publishers, and immediate access to books for consumers, have to be weighed against the lack of a sympathetic diversity that came with more independent bookshops, and in turn the creation of a winner-takes-all market, driven by algorithms. With three Amazon warehouses in the north of Ireland, plenty of Irish consumers are already using Amazon, so this may not be quite the trauma for the Irish book trade as it was for their British cousins.  

Elsewhere in Europe, Simon & Schuster’s purchase of VBK only intensifies what is already an interesting theatre of combat. Dutch was in the frontline of English language intrusion in their market, and this will have worsened for them in recent years. Giving a Dutch publisher access to the S&S global reach has some benefit, and for S&S the purchase will ‘provide a better avenue to sell, produce and distribute its titles in Europe and to publish more S&S titles locally.’ With Penguin US taking up home in Grantham Book Services in order to lay claim to European sales, this looks like a see-you-and-raise from S&S. 

Women in publishing

The Nibbies evening seems like a life time ago. I was pleased for my friends at Bloomsbury and Profile, both of whom had extraordinary years. Murdle was an outrageous success. Katherine Rundell is supremely talented and gosh, Bloomsbury published Impossible Creatures well. What stopped me in my tracks were facts cited by Jenny Broom and Rachel Williams, co-founders of the very brilliant Magic Cat Publishing, after picking up the Small Press of the Year Nibbie: that just 2% of VC funding went to women last year—and that 70% to 80% of consumer decisions are made by women.

There is still genuine anxiety and sensitivity about the position of women in the industry, with pay inequality probably being the main cause. The position of women in the industry should look strong. This is hardly scientific proof, but of the 13 trade awards at the Nibbies, ten were picked up by women—which chimes with my impression that 70% of the major decision-makers and drivers in the industry are women. It has sometimes been felt that the work was being done by women and the men were at the top, taking the credit. This has partly changed, in that there has been a generational wash. Where once, women started in the typing pools in the 1970s and early 1980s, they are now running management and publishing meetings and beginning to run board rooms. 

The majority of publishers in the Independent Alliance have female bosses, including the leading three of Profile, Canongate and Faber. The big three trade corporate publishers are run by men, but you don’t have to be that old to have worked in a time when HarperCollins and Random House were run by women and Helen Fraser was group MD of Penguin. Now Bonnier and Macmillan have female CEOs, and recent appointments at Walker and Taylor & Francis mean that almost no men have been appointed as bosses of major UK publishers in the last 18 months. The interesting question is whether boards and management should reflect that 70% female majority of the work force, or aim for a 50/50 split—which would give men a disproportionate amount of seats at the top table. 

All this makes the 2% of VC funding all the more incredible. Is it simply the trope that women only apply for jobs—and by extension, investment—when they are 100% sure they can do it, while men are happy to apply if they reckon they can do 60% of it. Those exact percentages have been discredited down the years, but the theory remains. Furthermore, I imagine that the VC space is male dominated, which suggests a sexist closed door?   

I know book publishing can be a bubble, but we surely reflect the outside world in some ways. Looking at the ownership structures of the major companies, it’s a blurry picture, but essentially my hunch was right. Bertelsmann, Lagardere, News International, Holtsbrinck, KKR and Bonnier all have males bosses. Women sit on the boards of course, and Lagardere looks like it is making an effort to redress the balance. But if I am right about the generational wash, it needs one more generation to get further up the beach to high tide, which occupies the space of running the ownership, not just running the companies. One such high tide has been reached at the IPG, where eight of the ten board members are women—and four of them have founded their own business.

Finally, a lot of us have our heads in our hands about the loss of Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the Hay and Edinburgh festivals. Gaza and climate change are highly emotive subjects to which we all respond in our different ways. Festivals have bounced back since Covid, but finance for most of them is tricky, so there is now a genuine question mark now as to whether they will thrive or even survive in the future. 

Will Atkinson

IPG trade publishing correspondent