Sunday, August 10, 2008

Small publishers dominate Australian book production (but not sales)

I recently had the dubious pleasure of producing an analysis of Australia's book production statistics for 2007, compiled from Bowker's Global Books in Print.

I'm actually a bit of a fan of statistics (if only I'd know sooner, I could have had that briefly planned career as a psychologist), but after 40 hours of analysis I must confess I was flagging a bit until I made quite a startling discovery: Australian publishers actually published 60% more books in 2007 than expected!

14,258 titles were published last year in Australia by a massive 3937 different publishers (by way of contrast, in the UK, 115,000 books were published in 2007).

This contrasts significantly with the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures, which reported in 2003/4 that just 8602 titles were published by 244 publishers. Obviously the ABS never bothered to count the thousands of books published by small publishers. Small publishers are an ignored group around the world (have a look at the US Independent Book Publishers Association's 2003 survey, The Rest of Us, by way of an illustration), but as production technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, they are producing more and more books. Australian publishers publishing 20 books or less in 2007 were responsible for almost 50% of all book production - about 7000 titles. By contrast, the largest 19 publishing houses, which all published at least 100 Australian titles each in 2007, were responsible for just 31% of all Australian titles produced in that year.

You can imagine that this imbalance in production was not reflected in retail sales figures—in fact it was almost exactly reversed! This is largely due to the entrenched dominance of the large multinationals in Australia, and the widely differing quality of those books published by small presses, not to mention their lack of marketing muscle.

If you're wondering what Aussies like to publish, children’s fiction—a grab bag that includes picture books, fairy tales, poetry and junior fiction—was the largest single subject category of publishing, with 1311 titles. This was followed by adult fiction (851), history (844 titles), autobiography/biography (653), general education (541), management/business (480) and medical/health (451).

I'm not sure what we can learn from these statistics, except that if you're looking to do business in Australia, don't just look at the big guys. They may be dominant, and they may be the ones who can afford to travel to Frankfurt, but they have no monopoly on good books.

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