Tagholm's take - the news in books at 23 June 2017

Roger Tagholm
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 23 June 2017

Roger Tagholm, in association with the London Book Fair, on the US audio boom, Andrew Wylie's latest interview, and other news from the book trade world


We crave good news at the moment - and some arrived in the shape of a report from the US Audio Publishers Association estimating that, according to information from responding publishers, audiobook sales revenue in the US in 2016 was 18.2% up on 2015, at $2.1bn, with unit sales up 33.9%.

According to the AAP's executive director Michele Cobb, this is the third consecutive year that audiobook sales have increased by nearly 20%. It is evidence, if any were needed, of the continuing rise of mobile - the multifunctionality of which is often cited as the reason that phones are winning in popularity over pure e-readers.

In the UK, the Publishers Association's #LoveAudio campaign concludes this weekend, supported by figures from Nielsen that are not quite as positive as those from the US, but still encouraging. Nielsen found that in 2016, 5.5m people bought or listened to an audiobook, an increase of 3% over 2014.

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The election of Donald Trump and the machinations over Brexit continue to draw attention. Agent Andrew Wylie gave a rare interview to Publishing Perspectives, which showed him in philosophical mood. Essentially, he tried to answer the question: what does publishing stand for? He expressed concern about the nationalist sentiments that are afoot in his own country, in parts of Europe and elsewhere in the world, and said: 'The publishing world is in opposition to this. And it's not simply a business question. Is it justifiable to be nationalist? Is that a satisfactory equation for an individual as well as for a society? The answer is a resounding, 'No, it's not.''

In stressing his agency's internationalist approach, Wylie said he was paying a lot of attention to emerging voices from Africa. 'For us, one of the most important developments of recent years has been the rise of young African writers, many of them from Nigeria, but not only from Nigeria. They're from across Africa. Many of those writers are engaged at a very deep level on questions of internationalism, because many of the writers travel between Nigeria and the United States. They talk about the difficulty of assimilation not only in the United States but on return to Africa. It's a marvellous demonstration of the strength of internationalism and the question that internationalism raises with a young writer.'

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'Internationalist' is a good way of describing the Sharjah Book Authority (SBA), poised to open its global publishing hub and free trade zone, Sharjah Publishing City (SPC), later this year. SBA Chairman Ahmed Al Ameri says space at SPC is selling fast and that he has been greatly encouraged by discussions about Ingram's Lightning Source becoming a print-on-demand partner within the facility. In words that would be of interest to Wylie, he also said: 'We have good interest in India and in France, and we're opening up the African market this time. And not just to publishers. We will have printers, editors, translators, illustrators...'

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The news about digital is often that it is either stable or has dropped a little. Thus BookNet Canada released its annual report showing that digital sales - including audiobooks as well as ebooks - dropped by 2% in Canada in 2016. However, one market that seems to be bucking this trend is Russia. Here, according to data from the science and culture ministry, print sales in 2016 declined by 7% but there was a 'substantial' upturn in ebook sales, with projected growth of between 30 and 50%. Among the reasons cited are a decline in bookstores - despite tax relief measures introduced by the government - and an increase in the price of paper, which has presumably been passed on to consumers.

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Independent Booksellers Week happens in Thailand too. The fifth Thai Independent Booksellers Week runs from 24 June to 2 July and will see nearly 20 independent booksellers attend a conference organised by the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT). The association's president, Charun Hormtienthong, notes: 'The value of independent bookstores lies in their meticulous decoration and their extensive and expertly curated inventory. Independent bookstores can also offer customers unique places to sip a coffee while browsing through shelves, or comfortable nooks to read in throughout the day... Big bookstore chains, in contrast, only offer a grab-and-go experience.'

PUBAT says there are more than 50 independent bookstores in Bangkok (pop. 9.4m), with the sector holding its own despite a sluggish economy and the rise of digital. One such is Candide Books, whose owner Duangruethai Asanachatang told the Bangkok Post that the difference between indies and chainstores was especially notable in fiction, some of which Candide purchases 'directly from authors', a fascinating example of differently the book industry may be structured in other parts of the world.

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