Rising costs and slowing demand caught up with three of the four major publishers that release their financial results, leading to a decline in profits at Penguin Random House, Lagardère Publishing, and HarperCollins in 2022 compared to 2021. Only Simon & Schuster was able to counter the trend, posting a 16.4% increase in earnings on an 18.5% gain in sales.
Executives at the three publishers where profits fell cited similar reasons for the decline—namely, higher costs across all areas of the business due to inflation and ongoing kinks in the supply chain, coupled with easing demand after two years of pandemic-fed surges. The slowdown in sales caught Amazon with lots of unsold inventory, including books, and resulted in a significant reduction in book orders for long stretches of 2022.
HC CEO Brian Murray cited a significant drop in orders from Amazon as one of the major factors in its difficult year, with a big drop in sales and earnings in the second half, resulting in a 4.6% decline in revenue and 36.2% drop in profits. The decline in its financial performance, as well as an uncertain outlook for 2023, led HC to begin implementing a 5% reduction in its North American workforce in January. Parent company News Corp ordered cuts across all of its subsidiaries, and they’re expected to be completed by the end of June.
Sales rose 4.8% at PRH in the year, to €4.22 billion (about $4.6 billion at current exchange rates), but EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes) fell to €666 million. The U.S. accounted for 57% of total PRH sales. Parent company Bertelsmann said that the publishing business in the U.S. “reflected the normalization of demand following the strong sales of the pandemic years, as well as the challenges posed by inflation and supply-chain pressures.” Nihar Malaviya, who took over as interim global CEO from Markus Dohle at the beginning of the year, called the results a “mixed performance” but acknowledged that PRH “fell short of our collective targets.”
Revenue at Lagardère Publishing, the parent company of Hachette Book Group, was €2.75 billion ($2.94 billion) in 2022, up 5.8% over 2021, but earnings fell 14%, to €302 million. The company attributed the sales increase to acquisitions, including a full year of sales from Workman Publishing (which was acquired by Hachette Book Group in September 2021), as well as to a €87 million gain from exchange rates.
HBG’s financial performance mirrored that of the larger publishing group. CEO Michael Pietsch said total sales were up over 2021 because of the Workman purchase and “were down slightly” from the peak of 2021, excluding Workman results. Profits fell because of “sharply rising manufacturing and freight costs,” he added.
Even with its strong results in 2022, S&S couldn’t escape the pressure of rising costs. After sales jumped 26% in the first six months of 2022 and profits soared 64%, results softened in the second half. Still, the 18.5% increase in sales put total S&S revenue above $1 billion for the first time since it became a standalone trade publisher.
CEO Jonathan Karp said revenue was up in all of S&S’s operating groups, with audio posting the biggest increase. The company also benefitted from publishing the majority of mega-bestselling author Colleen Hoover’s titles, and Karp was particularly excited by the performance of S&S’s international division, which saw sales up in all areas, led by a 21% jump at Simon & Schuster UK.
Offered a chance to make a prediction for how S&S will do in 2023, Karp demurred, explaining that, given the uncertainty surrounding not only the economy but who S&S’s future owner will be, he preferred to “enjoy the moment, and I think I speak on behalf of everyone at Simon & Schuster.” Lagardère executives were the only ones to provide a forecast, saying they expect sales and earnings to be flat in the year.
The best any executives could say about prospects for 2023 is that they expect sales to remain above prepandemic levels. Data from Circana BookScan shows that unit sales in 2022 were 12% above 2019, and that through the first quarter of 2023 units were about flat compared to a year ago.
It looks like the old publishing mantra that “flat is the new up” may be appropriate once again.