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Bad news/good news

17 May 2004

Book sales in the two biggest English language markets seem to be set on diverging paths.

In the US recent Book Industry Study Group figures for 2003 show a decline in general adult books of 2.6%, whilst children's book sales fell 0.7%. The BISG forecast is that adult book sales will continue to decline, but children's will show growth, starting with this year.

These figures mask other trends. Sales of used books are going up and are difficult to measure, with high impact on specific markets such as students. The number of new books is increasing, even as unit sales decline, making margins tighter and the publishing of individual titles even more difficult. The big books need big promotion budgets to work and consume all the money, making midlist tougher and tougher.

Still worse news is that the BISG has reworked previous years' figures in a shift in methodology, which has meant that the overall market for 2003 was almost 8% smaller than had previously been thought. This reflects the way US publishers feel about their business, which many complain has been tough for nearly three years.

By contrast, the British market seems to be doing better. The annual Booksellers' Conference was notable for few grumbles and a generally optimistic mood caused by an expanding book market. This has partly been due to successful promotions such as the Big Read and Richard and Judy's Bookclub, which have successfully stimulated book sales through TV programmes. BA President Colin Marshall said: 'I cannot remember the book enjoying a higher media profile' and books and authors have definitely been getting a huge number of column inches.

Competition between the UK bookshop chains has meant that any reasonable-sized town is now likely to have a good chain bookshop, although the attrition amongst the independents continues. In short, books are fashionable, book-buyers have access to more bookshops and they are benefiting from increasing affluence. It's cheering to report that many readers are responding accordingly by buying more books.