In keynote speeches delivered at the start of a rebooted Digital Book World conference Tuesday morning, Macmillan CEO John Sargent and Jonathan Stolper, senior v-p and global managing director of Nielsen Book, pointed to a trade book market that is, for better or worse, relatively stable.
Stolper noted that while unit sales of print books as measured by Nielsen BookScan rose 3.3% in 2016, to 674 million, e-book units from its PubTrack Digital service (which tracks e-book sales from about 20 traditional publishers) fell 16% in the year, leading to an overall decline in units of 3.6%. With sales of e-books declining since 2013 and sales of print units rising, total trade market unit sales were down 1.3% between 2013 and 2016, Stolper observed.
Sargent, speaking before Stolper, said recent market trends have shown that there is “room for books” in a world which, at one point, a number of industry observers believed would be dominated by the sale of digital books. Sargent said he expects sales of e-books to continue to be soft in 2017, noting that it is “hard to see” what a new device may come along to give e-book sales a boost. E-books have become another way to deliver content, Sargent said, and provide publishers with different ways to make authors’ works available to readers. The digital transition, he added, is not finished.
He pointed to the booming sales of digital audiobooks, which he compared to listening to the radio, as a bright spot for publishers. He also acknowledged that self-publishing has been a fast-growing market and, coupled with modest growth from the traditional trade, shows “that our business isn’t shrinking, that there is plenty of reading going on out there.”
Macmillan increased its presence in the self-publishing market last year with its purchase of Pronoun. Sargent said he made the acquisition to provide another service to authors, but added that he expects Pronoun to give Macmillan insights on self-publishing trends as well as providing the company “with a better farm team” of authors than a slush pile.
While trade publishing is and always will be a business driven by instinct, Sargent said publishers need to use data better to make the entire publishing supply chain more efficient. Macmillan is also investing in more direct marketing programs in an attempt to reach the community of readers, and he noted that the company is shifting more advertising to social media.
While much of New York City’s publishing industry has been in mourning since the election of Donald Trump, Sargent, in response to a question, said that while President Obama, from a cultural standpoint, “was on our side,” many of his business initiatives were not. He said that the Obama administration favored technology companies over traditional publishers in a number of cases. And in an allusion to the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against five publishers over e-book price fixing that many saw as beneficial to Amazon, Sargent said Obama allowed the DoJ to increase the power and position of the digital side of the business.
Sargent began his speech by touching on trends in higher education where Macmillan owns a number of companies. The trade business is faring much better than higher education where, Sargent estimated that sales fell 12% last year (his remarks came before Pearson’s announcement that its higher education sales fell 18% last year). Higher education is in a transitional period in which the market will undergo “an extraordinary amount of change” that will focus on giving students more affordable digital options, Sargent said.
“The good news,” Sargent said, is that since the current business model “is so remarkably inefficient,” it is possible that publishers could drop the price of textbooks in half and still see profits go up.
Macmillan is investing “tens of millions of dollars” to develop new technologies to meet the needs of students, Sargent said. He predicted that higher education could be the first market where A.I. and machine learning “come into play.”