Tom Chalmers - Forget the one big order, publishers and authors now should be thinking small and global

Digital has made the last decade a challenging one for books and booksellers, but the past 18 months have shown a more positive trend. With London Book Fair over for another year, what can we conclude about the future of the publishing industry?

Last week I attended the London Book Fair and this week got off to glamourous start as our accountant was in the office to start to complete our end of year accounts. Both annual occurrences in very different ways provided an opportunity to consider how publishing and our businesses have developed over the last year.

There is no doubt that the book industry has been through a challenging decade as the Digital Revolution has completely and permanently changed consumer retailer and consumer demand and behaviour. The signs for book sales however over the last 18 months are starting to look positive again but there is no doubt we operate now in what feels like a different world after the worst of the storm has passed.

Without ruining an upcoming press release, our draft accounts are looking positive with Legend Press in particular having grown its sales over the last year by a huge 88%. There is still a long way to go to where we want the business to be by 2020 but our plan is moving forward along the right track.

When I reviewed the businesses in 2016, two things became clear for Legend Press – firstly, that the big pots of sales no longer exist in the same way and the future for publishers is in building up the number of small pots of revenue working in parallel. Secondly, I believe there is a sweet spot for trade fiction lists around 60-70 new titles per year that allow for economies of sale and critical mass but also the vital retention of being a nimble, innovative, fast-moving independent publisher.

For the latter, we are on target to reach that number of new titles in 2019. I could talk at length about that but for this blog I wanted to focus on the widening of sales pots. For many years we have battered away at an increasingly small number of UK book chains and outlets. While these remain vital to our business, it struck me finally that we were putting all our effort pushing at something we are unlikely to have a significant impact on.

As a result, we changed our focus to widening our reach in the UK – using sales reps for individual branches and for new outlets such as supermarkets and special sales – and then widening our reach internationally, setting up distribution in UK, India and Australia, plus working with sales reps to cover Europe, Middle-East and Far-East.

We still want that one huge front-of-shop chain order in the UK, but quickly our focus has evolved to a hopefully increasingly secure sales infrastructure with a wider reach, which we believe this is the future for publishers. Yes, we want to know what that one key retailer thinks of our new big release, but we are also thinking of initial smaller but hopefully growing orders from independent bookshops, special sales, and from US, India and Australia and so on.

Having started saying how the digital transformation has created challenging conditions for publishers, it is digital change that allows a small publisher in London to work effectively across international markets. Maybe most importantly of all, through this change of approach we are working with market change rather than against it.

So, whether you are a publisher or an author, self-publishing or with a traditional publisher, don’t put all of your hopes in the response of four emails from UK book retailers. It takes a lot of groundwork but you have an opportunity to build up a wide network of sales that will support you now and also hopefully for many years to come.