What us worry?
Americans we spoke with in Frankfurt seemed remarkably cheerful despite the dismal economic and credit news. Maybe the unexpected rise in the U.S. dollar versus the euro in the last week helped--by making a trip to Europe less expensive. In any case, most attendees in our unscientific sample were buying and selling rights, doing deals and promoting upcoming titles last week as though nothing had changed outside the huge halls.
Even a few people who had difficult results so far this year were positive overall. One publisher who greeted us with, "I can't wait to get the hell out of this year," said later in the conversation, "This should be a solid Christmas."
Several publishers and distributors remain concerned about Borders, and one noted that the retailer sometimes takes up to two weeks to get books from loading docks onto bookshelves although it pays bills on time. Several said they were concerned about both chains because mall traffic in general is weaker. Otherwise, independents, libraries and other accounts are doing well. One publisher said that Amazon seems to have benefited from tougher economic times and has improved market share even as sales have dropped slightly.
Many in the industry look forward to the period after the election, when the country should be less distracted by politics. One publisher noted that books have had especially tough competition for publicity and consumer attention in the past few months: besides an intense political season in general, there have been the fascination with Governor Sarah Palin, the jump in energy prices, hurricanes and the financial meltdown.
Thanksgiving is celebrated late this year, and one wholesaler predicted that holiday sales will "come hard and come late."
As ever, there was a debate about whether books are recssion-proof. The best answer we heard was a Yogi Berra-like "maybe, depending on the book, publisher and category."
Lightning Source has more than 650,000 titles in its digital library, a number it expects to double in the next 18 months. In a little over 10 years, the company has printed more than 60 million books with an average run of 1.8 copies.
David Taylor, head of the Ingram POD service, gave these and other statistics at the 30th annual meeting of the International Supply Chain Specialists at the 60th annual Frankfurt Book Fair. Although the presentations at this day-long meeting before the show starts can be full of acronyms and a bit dry, it's where some technical innovations that change the industry are first discussed in front of a global audience.
Taylor said the new version of the Espresso Machine is "80% of where it needs
to be" in terms of quality. This POD machine "surely has a place in
bookshops or libraries, although how big a place remains to be seen." He predicted that the service would continue to change globally distributed print models so that eventually books would be printed only when they've been sold.
Speaking later at the show at his booth, John Ingram noted that Lightning Source had helped print huge runs of books with sudden overnight demand--recent examples include Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned the Political Establishment Upside Down by Kaylene Johnson and What Happened by Scott McClellan. Ingram said he was looking forward to the day when publishers as a matter of course send e-files for new books to Lightning Source so that Lightning Source will be ready to handle unexpected requests with the press of a button.
Also at the Supply Chain Specialists meeting, hosted by Editeur and the Boersenverein (the German publishers, wholesalers and booksellers association), Fernando Fontes discussed Byblos Livrarias, a bookstore in Lisbon, Portugal, that opened in December last year and uses RFID tags on all its books and other products. Only two years ago, one of the major presentations at this meeting concerned Selexyz Almere in the Netherlands, the first bookstore we know of to use RFID (Shelf Awareness, October 3, 2006).
Byblos, which has 35,000 square feet of space and sells 150,000 titles and 350,000 items overall, including music and games, was developed by a former publishing company, Fontes said, and calls itself "the first intelligent bookshop." Most of the books are in Portuguese but there also many in English, French, German and Spanish. The store has a conference room and cafe and 44 information kiosks, 14 RFID-enabled teller machines and 10 handheld terminals that communicate via wi-fi and RFID.
Byblos puts RFID tags on books at three tagging stations in its small warehouse. Tags cost 13 euro cents each (about 17 U.S. cents). Fontes estimated that it costs about the same to put an RFID tag on each book as it would to put a price tag on--and because the store uses the RFID tag for its security system, it saves on a special tag for that.
The company has one terminal that "reads" books going back to publishers (tags are taken off before the books are shipped).
Fontes praised the RFID system for helping with "fast payment," identifying books quickly and accurately and helping the store in its effort to create a modern environment and provide excellent customer service.
Not surprisingly, Fontes suggested that life would be easier were tags to be added to books when they are printed and he argued that the world needed tag standards.
In another presentation, Julie Meynink and Peter Mathews of Nielsen Book analyzed book sales between 2004 and 2007 in the U.S., U.K. and Australia to see whether Chris Anderson's Long Tail theory applied.
Among the conclusions: the tail has grown longer in all three markets (meaning many more titles are being sold), the tail is fatter in the U.K. (more copies of the less popular titles are being sold) and the head is shorter in the U.S. (the most popular titles are selling fewer copies).
The reduction in U.S. sales of the head (the blockbusters) may in part be because books by Dan Brown accounted for so many sales in the early part of the sample period and because Nielsen does not count sales by Wal-Mart, which stocks a limited, very popular selection of book titles.
In the U.K. between 2004 and 2007, blockbusters continued to get bigger, but the market share in nonfiction of the top 10 publishers decreased to 49% from 52%, and the top four's market share fell to 35% from 40%.
Incidentally it seemed that in conversations with foreigners, sooner or later the presidential election came up, usually with some version of this question, always put diplomatically, "Who do you think will win?"
A publisher from Australia noted that voting is compulsory Down Under (miscreants are fined) and expressed frustration that so many Americans don't vote even though our government's actions affect so many things worldwide. She suggested that she and others be given the votes of those here who don't cast ballots.
Who are they all rooting for? His name begins and ends with a vowel.--John Mutter
[More reporting from Frankfurt tomorrow.]