Pockets of Potential for Trade Sales

By now the rise of books about the Mideast and the fall of just about everything else has been well documented by The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. Many reasons have been cited: the abrupt cancellation of tours; the general lack of promotion and concurrent lack of reader attention; the economy; and fear, any which way you take it: of shopping, the future, malls, and now, even mail. Earlier this month, the Times claimed that certain categories such as fiction are off by 25% to 40% from last year’s bestsellers. In a memorable line, Carolyn Reidy told the paper, “I have seen softness in the market for books, but always the bigger books still sold — that is why the falloff in name fiction is so horrifying.” To drive home the point, in the press release welcoming her, Peter Olson hailed Phyllis Grann as an “invaluable addition to our company at anytime [sic], but never more so than now as we must apply even greater ingenuity to overcome the ongoing book marketplace downturn.”

Curious about the numbers behind the numbers, this month Publishing Trends took a sharp look at sales in a variety of categories, pricepoints, channels of distribution, and geographic regions. Though we can’t report that the news is any rosier when parsed, at least the picture is certainly getting clearer.

Not surprisingly, almost every category has seen an incremental rise in sales during the last several weeks. Current title sales have increased 23% even in the last two weeks (through November 24), and backlist is up by 15%. Increased sales were evenly spread out over the country, with the West Coast registering a slight edge over other regions. Unfortunately, when compared with last year’s sales, the landscape is looking bleak. The current Wall Street Journal, which indexes its bestseller list to sales of the top fiction title in 2000 (which is indexed at 100), shows only one title — John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas — selling more than any title last year, and that’s in part because, as the Journal itself noted in an article this summer, fiction had been underselling throughout much of the year. But the trend is reversing itself once again, with several books, notably business titles, indexing in the single digits.

Pity, then, the publisher of business books, or travel books, or romances, whose numbers have fallen even since September, and continued their nosedive over these last weeks. On the other hand, sales of calendars and humor books are skyrocketing as buyers turn their minds to stocking stuffers. Meanwhile, children’s publishing is looking up, helped by three major movie tie-ins (Harry Potter, Monsters Inc. and Lord of the Rings), each bolstering a different publisher. But children’s picture books are also doing well, as are certain series. It seems that, where current events have dampened adult reading, they have had the converse effect on children — or their parents. Certain other areas such as spirituality, books on the Mideast, and atlases saw a bump in sales in September and October, but have receded in recent weeks. All’s well on the home front, however, as cooking and crafts books continue to show strength.

Direct mail publishers haven’t fared any better than their trade counterparts. In fact, though they haven’t been hurt by people shunning the mall, and their returns problems are minimal (the clubs have returns primarily on selections), direct response has been difficult for many sectors this year — even before September — and massive layoffs are already under way. Rodale announced layoffs of 148 jobs (most of them in the direct mail books division) in October, while Reader’s Digest saw its revenues on both General Books and Select Editions fall in 2001, even before September’s “disastrous” decline. Bookspan has laid off editorial and marketing personnel, though many of the latter were related to the merging of Doubleday and BOMC operations. Still, some companies, like International Masters Publishers (IMP), which have been struggling for the past several years, did surprisingly well in their fall solicitations — which began mailing on September 11. Marketing execs from the company chalk that up to the subject matter, which includes cooking, crafts, and a religious program. But even as the mails began to rebound, anthrax spores made their way into many facilities, causing enormous problems for many companies, especially those with return addresses in some of the worst-hit areas, like New York and DC. The mails haven’t recovered, and some marketers are turning to the dread telemarketing to keep their numbers up.

What conclusions can be drawn from sales patterns over the last several months? One factor intermittently mentioned in reports has been pricing. In the Journal article this summer, Geoffrey Fowler notes that some of the bestselling nonfiction books were priced in the modest $10 to $20 range. The Popular Group’s first titles (also priced in this range) are reportedly flying off Wal-Mart’s shelves, and IMP’s continuity series cost as little as $4.95 a shipment. True, the megaseller John Adams had a hefty $35 price tag but it was, as Carl Lennertz was quoted as saying, a book that could “keep you busy all summer long.” Initial Bookscan figures suggest that there is a dearth of titles with list prices in the $20 to $22.50 range — the price bracket where discounted hardcovers could be bought with a twenty dollar bill, even including tax. Is it coincidence that Grisham’s new offering has taken off? Can we still call ourselves an industry in which, as the Times’ David Kirkpatrick put it, sales of books were always considered to be “resilient during hard times as an inexpensive source of hours of entertainment”? If sales are no longer “resilient,” is it the subject matter, the venue, or the price? Regardless of that conundrum, it’s obvious that the loss of sales has proven catastrophic for publishers and their authors.

Modestly Proposed

Publishing Trends has a modest proposal that might benefit all: Were each publisher to delay the spring publication of a handful of books, and instead each republish a handful of those worthy fall books that never glimpsed their potential, in early 2002 it might give readers and authors the chance they deserve to read and be read. When Harry Evans was at Random House, he republished Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action four months after the first publication, because he was so disappointed in its initial reception, despite tremendous review attention. He got a second round of sales, and helped pave the way for the paperback, too. What would happen if the industry were to go it again, perhaps prevailing upon the publicity-wise Pat Schroeder to fight this good fight? Desperate measures for desperate times?

This report was compiled from various sources, including interviews with industry leaders, in addition to bestseller lists and articles from PW, WSJ, and NYT. Special thanks to Bookscan, which provided access to its category data.