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Another tough year

12 January 2004

Although there’s no guarantee that 2004 will be any better, the book world was on the whole glad to see the back of 2003. In the UK Christmas sales seem to have been quite good for some of the chains, but the New Year was hustled in to the accompaniment of disastrous results and a profit warning from W H Smith. The company achieved a double whammy of bad results by sacrificing margin to discount more aggressively than last year, whilst failing to achieve the required uplift in sales. New CEO Kate Swann clearly has plenty of work to do and the first of possibly quite a few heads to roll was that of Beverly Hodson, MD of Retail.

In the US publishers are hoping that a gloomy 2003 will be succeeded by a better 2004. Gayle Feldman, the Bookseller’s New York correspondent, produced a memorable description of the year: ‘Under the roofs of the big houses could be heard the reverberations of corporate turf battles, the unnerving silence of offices emptied by campaigns of attrition, and a fair degree of keening over blood-red ink.’ But the economy is picking up, 2004 will suffer from the shadow of the Iraqi ‘peace’, rather than an imminent war, and there’s an election campaign to look forward to. This might be the year when traditional American optimism reasserts itself.

Europe presents a fairly gloomy picture, but once again the bottom may have been reached. In Germany, the most important European market for foreign publishers and authors, bookshop sales for the year were down 3.4%, but the autumn showed some improvement. Spain and Italy had a much better year, whilst the resurgent economies of the countries of Eastern Europe look more promising for the book business.

But everywhere else publishers seem to be cutting their lists, some by as much as 20% in 2004, as a reaction to fewer promotional slots being made available by the book chains. This will inevitably make it even harder for mid-list authors to get their books published. We had all better hope that increasing sales will enable big publishers and booksellers to reverse this trend and take a more bullish approach to the business. Here’s hoping too that independent publishers and bookshops can survive and even prosper so that the conglomerates do not entirely take over the book world.