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!
I grew up in the volatile, exciting, and often strident 60s and 70s, finishing high school in the ‘spirit of ’76’ bicentennial year. During my formative years –
• John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated
• The culture of divorce and promiscuity took root and blossomed
• Watts burned and riots rocked Chicago during the Democratic National Convention
• America surrendered in war for the first time when it pulled out of Viet Nam – unless you count Korea, which was at best a stalemate
• Muslim terrorists killed Jewish athletes at the Olympics
• There was an energy crisis
• Commercial airlines and cruise ships were hi-jacked (and yes, my future wife was a ‘stewardess’ on that 1978 Delta flight that got redirected to Havana)
• The American auto industry lost its preeminent role
• A president was impeached and removed from office
• Disco conquered the airwaves – yikes
• The U.S. Olympic basketball team lost its first ever international game to the U.S.S.R. in a highly controversial ending
• Oh, and ‘we’ landed on the moon
Whatever you think of Jimmy Carter ‘the President,’ he made a number of profound statements that summed up where America was a month before the end of my teens years in a speech he gave on July 15, 1979.
The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.
The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our Nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else – public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.
Ironically, Carter’s greatest failing may have been the palpable sense of pessimism – a near doom? – that pervaded his demeanor and words throughout his presidency. And in case you are wondering, yes, this was part of his famous “malaise” speech. How was I going to argue with that? I didn’t feel very confident about the future myself.
It was Ronald Reagan who seemed to understand Carter’s words better than Carter himself and brought a positive buoyancy to the American psyche over much of the next decade. Some say he was just in the right place at the right time and got lucky that the business cycle turned around but even his most ardent critics have to admit his sense of optimism may have helped change some things.
In a Tale of Two Cities (1859) Charles Dickens penned the immortal phrase: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … Set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, he showed how the peasants were oppressed and brutalized by the aristocracy and how in turn they were indiscriminately brutalized by the revolutionaries. (Brazilian author, educator, and reformer Paulo Freire described the psychological movement from oppressed to oppressor in his landmark book Pedagogy of the Oppressed  that described freedom movements in South America.)
There is a lot of hand-wringing today. And for reason. There is a plethora of real and pervasive international, national, ethnic, economic, moral, social, personal, and spiritual problems. And yes, the American auto industry is reeling yet again.
Maybe it is the end of an era of prosperity and more importantly opportunity. But I suspect that the real reality is what Dickens described; we are living in the best of times and the worst of times. Even if consumer confidence was up and economic indicators were through the roof – the best of times for some – if there are oppressors and oppressed then it is still the worst of times … for somebody.
And yet a focus on such ‘realism’ simply doesn’t ignite passions and energize dreams. And what are dreams but what Carter called ‘confidence in the future’ … the belief – as unrealistic as it might seem – that my plans and actions can create a new reality. I can do something to build a better world.
Jesus said, ‘ the poor you will always have with you’ (Matthew 26:11) – very realistic – but men and women who have faith in Him have been at the forefront of compassionate ministry.
Even as companies fall there are people who still work to build new companies … and succeed.
Today is just like other days. The best of times. The worst of times. You may fall to one side of that equation personally. No matter. As a psychology professor said in a graduate class I took: I don’t care where you’ve been or even where you are … I want to know where you’re going!
So where are you going? What does the future look like to you?