Sep 25, 2016

Even in this digital world you can’t put books down

I am debating whether to write another book. The last one I wrote, called Start It Up, was published five years ago, and achieved very modest success. Still, it did better than the seven other books I’ve written, the first of which was published almost 30 years ago.

On one level, books matter a great deal. They are the very basis of civilisation, acting as literary repositories of all our accumulated wisdom and stories. The better ones tend to endure like little else in a transient world. They contain, in a physical form, all our hopes, dreams, ideas and collective memories. If I visit someone’s house and find no books of any kind — which is all too common — I think it is very sad. I have always deeply loved books, and buy and own far too many. I still much prefer them printed on paper and bound, rather than in any e-form.

But I have moments when I think they are a waste of time. Reading and writing them are solitary pursuits, and obtaining information is now much easier via the web. Arguably, far too many books are published in this country — about 184,000 a year, many more per capita than any other major country — though of course lots are simply UK editions of US books. As an industry, Britain does well in book publishing, thanks I suppose to the English language; after all, there are at least 600m native English speakers, and about 1.5bn who read English.

For example, Oxford University Press is by far the world’s largest university publisher, with revenue of about £760m and pre-tax profits in a good year of almost £100m — not bad for an enterprise founded in 1668. Its success reflects the fact that about half of all book revenues are generated by educational and professional works. As a whole, the publishing industry contributes £10.2bn a year to the UK economy, and exports represent 42% of total revenues.

I sat on the board of Phaidon Press for a few years as a non-executive director, and many years ago partly owned Marshall Editions. Both published international, illustrated books, but neither was very profitable. Generally, operating margins were 5% at best, which seemed to me feeble compared with the capital employed and all the intellectual effort that went into publishing the books. It was always difficult to tell how much money such businesses were actually making, while a great deal of cash was tied up in stock and work in progress, so working capital was considerable.

These days the advances most authors receive are pitiful in return for all the effort required to write a 100,000-word book. I made more money from a few paid speaking appearances during the promotion of my book than I did from the advance. Yet one of the attractions of writing for a living is that you can receive royalty cheques long after you have expended all that labour. My father, who has been an author for 60 years, still receives occasional royalty cheques for books he wrote decades ago.

One of the more surprising aspects of today’s book market is that printed works have held their own against ebooks.

I wrote in 2011 that digital would soon account for most of book publishers’ income; in fact it remains stable at about 20% of the overall market.

Of course it offers lucrative margins for both publisher and author, since the fulfilment costs are negligible. But book printers have become more efficient in how they run their businesses, and more imaginative in the books they print and bind.

I once part-owned the largest independent book printer, then called Bath Press, but we realised the industry was consolidating — and required constant capital investment in new equipment — so sold out to a larger concern.

Established publishers do face a growing market in self-published digital books, but they still seem to cope (even though they have been pleading poverty for many years). I recently went to a party at Hachette to drink champagne on the glorious roof terrace of the publisher’s grand offices in London, so times can’t be too bad. The book trade is certainly a mature industry, but it actually grew 1.3% last year and is arguably doing better than some other traditional media sectors, such as magazines, newspapers and radio.

Ultimately books are both cultural texts and commercial objects. Like most entertainment sectors, this is a “hit” business with the characteristics of winner (read bestseller) takes all.

However, its diversity is what makes it special. Almost none of those who become involved in publishing are driven by financial motives alone. Certainly I allowed my heart to rule my head when I bought the ailing Borders bookshop chain some years ago, and almost blew my brains out as it struggled against the onslaught of Amazon, ebooks, supermarkets and the like.

But I still love books, and will probably write another one before too long.