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Q: How is the publishing industry impacted by a struggling economy?
A: I can only answer on the basis of today, and on November 25, 2008 (*), the answer is that the publishing industry has indeed been impacted negatively and at least in equal measure to the overall economy!
The old axiom was that publishing was recession proof – especially religious publishing. Why? In the overall scheme of the economy (and people’s pocketbooks) books are a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment, best partaken at home, which saves gas and eat-out money. In the case of religious publishing, the prevailing wisdom has been that when the economy is good “people play” but when it’s bad “people pray!”
But in this ongoing subprime-crisis-automaker-melt-down-government-bail-out-required economic downturn in America, sales are not good for retailers or publishers. The list of retail chains reporting same-store declines is as long as the list of … well, uh, retail chains. The only reliable statistics available on the health of independent retailers is the number that are closing on a weekly basis. Iconic flagship book retailer, Barnes & Noble, reports glum 3rd quarter results and 4th quarter projections:
by Jim Milliot — Publishers Weekly, 11/20/2008 6:19:00 AM
The news was about as bad as it could be from Barnes & Noble. For the third quarter ended November 1, total sales fell 4.4%, to $1.1 billion, with sales through its bookstores down by the same 4.4%. Same store sales fell 7.4%. Sales at Barnes & Noble.com rose 2%, to $109 million. Moreover, the nation’s largest bookstore chain predicted that–based on the negative sales trend to date–same store sales in the fourth quarter will fall 6% to 9%. Earlier this month, B&N chairman Len Riggio warned employees in a memo that the company was bracing for a terrible holiday season.
Books-A-Million, which is strongest in the Bible Belt fared even worse.
by Jim Milliot — Publishers Weekly, 11/21/2008 2:13:00 PM
The drumbeat of bad news from the nation’s bookstore chains continued Friday with Books-A-Million reporting that total revenue dropped 5.7% in the third quarter ended November 1, to $110.9 million. Comparable store sales tumbled 9.9%, the “weakest comparable store sales in many years,” said CEO Sandy Cochran. With the sales decline, BAM’s loss deepened to $2.2 million in the quarter compared to a loss of $555,000 in last year’s third period.
The sales decline was felt in most segments, Cochran said, with bargain books, gifts, and the teen categories among the few areas where business was up. A decline in customer traffic plus a cost conscious consumer where blamed for the poor results. BAM is focused on “controlling costs, managing inventory and preparing for the holiday season,” Cochran said.
While Cochran said the holiday publishing schedule is a good one, she sees few signs indicating that the difficult marketplace will shift anytime soon. For the first nine months of the year, revenue was down 4.8%, to $349.2 million, and the company had a loss of $635,000 compared to earnings of $4.6 million in the same period last year. Comp sales for the nine months were off 8.0%
Perhaps the most dramatic announcement came from the supply side of the industry with the news that literary giant Houghton Mifflin was putting a hold on acquisitions – akin to a fish saying that they might spend a year away from the water.
HMH Places “Temporary” Halt on Acquisitions
By Rachel Deahl — Publishers Weekly, 11/24/2008 12:54:00 PM
It’s been clear for months that it will be a not-so-merry holiday season for publishers, but at least one house has gone so far as to halt acquisitions. PW has learned that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has asked its editors to stop buying books.
Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts” across its trade and reference divisions. The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.” Blumenfeld, who hedged on when the ban might be lifted, said that the right project could still go to the editorial review board. He also maintained that the the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business.
“In this case, it’s a symbol of doing things smarter; it’s not an indicator of the end of literature,” he said. “We have turned off the spigot, but we have a very robust pipeline.” The action by the highly leveraged HMH may also be as much about the company’s need to cut costs in a tight credit market.as about the current economic slowdown.
What’s it mean for you as author or aspiring author?
If your heart is set on publishing with a traditional publishing house of note, the news isn’t great. My own company, Thomas Nelson, in anticipation of emerging economic woes, cut the number of titles being published almost in half as of March 2008. As a publisher I always find it more fun to do books than to not do books, but unquestionably, we were ahead of the curve.
If you are able to see publishing not just in terms of a paper and ink product with a particular logo or name on the spine – and are open to the array of self- and micro-publishing options available today – then this is just one more confirmation to go for it now rather than wait for your deal to sail in!