Flourishing indies bullish as IPG Conference opens

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Independent publishers are rejoicing at the news they are bucking the market trend, with their sales up 2.7% to £511.4m compared to just 0.2% growth in the wider marketas the annual Independent Publishers Guild (IPG) Spring Conference gets underway in Oxfordshire.

According to Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer market, indies have also compared favourably against the Big Four publishing groups – Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Pan MacMillan – which collectively saw sales dropping 1.9% to £718.2m last year, while indies accounted for £1 in every £3 spent by the UK public through the TCM in 2017. 

According to Bridget Shine, chief executive of the IPG, indies have the edge over their corporate rivals because they are “incredibly nimble and flexible” and quick to respond to new opportunities in market trends.

“It’s no surprise to us that independents did so well through the TCM last year”, Shine said. “Many IPG members had an excellent 2017, and the record number of entries for our awards is proof of that. Trade-wise, independents seem particularly strong in children’s books at the moment, and continue to flourish in many of the niches of publishing – specialist areas where they know their customers and retail channels inside out.”

Shine added that outside trade publishing, many academic, professional and education publishers were also performing strongly.

Oliver Gadsby, chief executive of academic publisher Rowman & Littlefield International and former IPG chair, said there was a “real spirit of energy and optimism in the indie sector at the moment”, which he expects to feed into the IPG conference.

“Independent publishers are constantly inventing, testing, reaching out to readers – and putting their personal energies into each launch and behind every author”, he said. “Is there something in the air at the moment with consumers? Independent bookshops are on the up again, and it may be that the love of the non-corporate and the non-monolithic also extends to the offerings of independent publishers. And of course the sector reaches out globally: indies are great exporters, and the weaker pound is certainly helping international sales.”

Meanwhile, Rolf Grisebach, c.e.o. of independent illustrated press Thames & Hudson, said that while T&H also had a “strong” year in terms of sales, it was difficult to generalise the reasons indies have grown more than the bigger corporates, who have the advantages of scale, shared infrastructure, diversified portfolio, and financial muscle, but that nimbleness and the speed at which indie publishers are able to decide on their growth initiatives, helps.

However, Grisebach warned the year ahead could turn out to be “more challenging” due to a weak UK retail environment and lower consumer confidence, given the uncertain political and macroeconomic climate. “We continue to see opportunities however in the way illustrated books are sold and presented by booksellers and non-traditional outlets as retailers increasingly appreciate the importance of beautiful, visual and high-quality books for the attractiveness of the retail experience,” he said. “We also assume that we can grow our business in the Asia region and are strenghtening our set-up there.”

Similarly, Martin Usborne, founder of photography book publisher Hoxton Mini Press, the winner of the Nick Robinson Newcomer Award at last year’s IPG awards, believes there is an “anti-digital movement” growing among consumers meaning they are more likely to splash out on high-quality, carefully considered photography books for a premium. “I suspect this is a trend that will continue for some time”, he added.

With Oneworld’s recent double Man Booker Prize winning successes in 2015 and 2016, with Marlon James and Paul Beatty respectively, publisher Juliet Mabey said the press wasn’t expecting sales growth in 2017. Overall the publisher’s revenue was down 3% in 2017, but with sales from Beatty’s The Sellout stripped out, revenue was up 2% in the UK and over 5% in the rest of the world, Mabey said, which she described as “really pleasing”.

Other books published by indies to be recently honoured by prizes include The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) which won The British Book Awards Book fo the Year, Bloomsbury’s Costa-winning The Explorer by Katherine Rundell, as well as its Man Booker winner Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saundersand Faber’s Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, which also won the Costa prize.

“At a time when bookselling here and in the US is seeing an increasing trend towards funnelling whereby a few titles do exceptionally well while so many others are overshadowed, these prize winners perform exceptionally well”, Mabey said, adding: “But of course there may be many other reasons, not least among them the competitive advantage offered by indies with nimble editors and a broad remit.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Braybrooke, m.d. of Scribe, said it had seen a “great” year in 2017, with sales up 21% in value on invoiced sales from 2016. The publisher also achieved the £1m mark in print sales revenue for the first time.

“There is a palpable sense of optimism around indie publishing at the moment, which is wonderful. I’m hesitant to opine on the market in general, but for us 2018 is all about consolidating the success of the last few years and just keeping our publishing program as consistently strong as possible”, said Braybrooke.

IPG membership has reached “record levels” this year, with more than 600 companies now members. The conference, which began yesterday (7th March) and runs until Friday morning, taking place at the Crowne Plaza Heythrop Park in Chipping Norton, is also expected to draw a record crowd, with 300 delegates and 40 speakers scheduled to appear.

Shine said: “There’s no reason why independents won’t have another good year in 2018. There are lots of challenges around of course – Brexit and its impact on staff, universities and copyright is probably the number one concern for members, and we’ll be watching that carefully. The weak pound cuts both ways – it’s making printing more expensive but it’s also made UK publishing exports a lot more attractive to overseas publishers and retailers.

“But there are far more opportunities than threats for independent publishers at the moment, and we’ll be exploring lots of them at the conference this week – like breaking into new retail channels, opportunities to leverage content on new platforms, audio, AI and lots more. We’re really looking forward to talking all these through with members this week. And the Independent Publishing Awards are going to be a great illustration of the success of IPG members over the last year.”

Yesterday afternoon’s (7th March) conference saw consultant Jo Forshaw’s presentation on audio draw a sizeable crowd. She told delegates that audio was the “gateway drug” to getting audiences to buy books, and added that it would “future-proof” the publishing businesses. The conference also saw Amy Joyner of Kogan Page discuss leveraging content, underlining that search ability was “vital”. “If your customers can’t find your books, you can’t sell them,” she said. Similarly, Chris Wold of consultants 99 & Associates, said: “If we aren’t leveraging our content in all the available areas then we’re leaving profit for us and our authors on the table”.

Wednesday’s sessions also included mindfulness coach and author Michael Townsend Williams discussing improving the quality of work life, Hoxton Mini Press’ Usborne highlighting the importance of beautiful books in an increasingly virtual world, and designer and artist Alan Moore discussing how beautiful design across a business’ output can increase sales and stimulate creativity.

The conference continues today with keynote speeches from BBC media editor Amol Rajan and Ken Clarke MP, as well as sessions on AI, children’s publishing and e-book marketing.

Earlier this year, The Bookseller conducted an analysis of how independent publishers fared last year through Nielsen BookScan sales.

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