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2009's troubled times continue in the US

11 January 2010

So how does the world look as we venture forth into the new decade? This week we'll look at the US and next week at the UK publishing worlds in an attempt to assess how the turmoil in the book trade is affecting writers.

Bowker's PubTrack Consumer service reminded us that the recession is still with us by publishing research which showed that Americans are buying fewer books because of the economic downturn, and purchase cheaper books when they do buy. It also found that 19% of US consumers were either buying more used books or swapping books with others. 34% of Americans have reduced the number of books they are buying. They are buying fewer hardbacks and more paperbacks, and only buying books that are being sold at steep discounts or that are on sale.

Knocking on the head a favourite publishing theory that books do well in recession, only 2% of consumers said that they were choosing to buy books as an alternative to more expensive kinds of entertainment. So, green shoots of recovery notwithstanding, the American book trade is still experiencing tough times.

The American trade journal Publishers' Weekly commented that:

'The end of 2009 marked the end of both a challenging year and a difficult decade for publishers. While it would be nice to think the worst is over, don't bet on it. As we look back at a year marked by job losses...and at a decade roiled by technology - we can't help thinking that tough times are likely to linger a bit longer. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, for book publishers, the end of 2009 is not the end of a difficult period. It is not even the beginning of the end. With any luck, however, it may be the end of the beginning...

'No question, this was a difficult year for the book business, and many of the year's problems remain. For one, the effects of the 2009 recession are about to be felt in earnest in 2010 library budgets, and that's one very big strike against a meaningful publishing industry rebound in the coming months. Despite gaudy, triple-digit growth, e-books still represent less than 5% of publishing revenues, so few are banking on digital revenues to bolster sagging bottom lines in the near future. And from courtrooms to boardrooms, some central, controversial issues remain unresolved.'

The recession hit harder in the US book business than it did in the UK. In 2009 US publishers are estimated to have shed between 7% and 10% of their workforce. Barnes and Noble launched the Nook to counter Amazon's Kindle and the other big bookselling chain, Borders, managed to stagger on, with massive cost-cutting and reduction of debt not achieving the hoped-for effect because of a big drop in sales.

Consumers held on to their money and it remains to be seen whether with the recession easing people will go back to book-buying.

And of course, everyone focused on digital. This was the year of the Google Settlement and rapid growth in sales relating to Amazon's Kindle, with the company reporting that e-book sales overtook print copy sales for the first time on Christmas day, presumably as a result of the instant gratification that digital download allows.

So what about writers? It's hard to see that the current situation in traditional US publishing offers much cheer. Lists have been pruned back and publishers are very wary of taking any chances. In the US however self-publishing has grown fast and there has been a boom during the last decade. The big publishers don't seem to have such a grip on the book business as they used to, as corporations fare worse in times of recession because of their large cost base and lack of flexibility.

Only the ending of the recession will change this radically and even then it seems likely that the big publishers will not go back to the same publishing output, as publishing fewer books is an attractive proposition to the corporate mind. They do though have to publish something to stay in business, so at some point lack of forward titles will force a reassessment of restricted buying policies. But in the meantime writers should keep working on their writing, and look at other possibilities such as the Internet and self-publishing.