Last August, Bowker announced that its Business Intelligence and Commerce Solution products would be sold to Nielsen. The transaction included the Bookstats database that the Book Industry Study Group and the Association of American Publishers have developed over the past several years.
The handover took place recently, and the Bookstats update to include 2013 data is expected in the next month or so. The transition and expected update got me thinking about three ways in which datasets like this one can be useful for businesses looking to make sense of the publishing marketplace.
The first is context. A publisher, distributor, wholesaler or retailer can look at the results for the most recent year (at this point, 2012) and establish how a firm is doing against the market as a whole. The data set can also provide private-equity and venture-capital firms with insights into the current state of the publishing market.
The Bookstats database uses a single data set to drive detailed reporting on revenues, units sold and average price per unit for a range of formats, channels and markets (Bookstats refers to them as categories). This approach provides multiple ways to assess relative performance against components of the market, though not specific companies.
The data can also be used to better understand shifts in the marketplace. These are the trends over time whose impact may be obscured in any single year. An example might be unit sales of mass-market paperbacks in the United States, which fell from a bit more than 408 million in 2010 to fewer than 217 million in 2012, a drop of 47% in just two years.
Publishing data can also help anyone interested in making a limited assessment of how quickly and extensively demand might change in other countries. The Bookstats database, for example, tracks the shift in dollars and units from print to digital formats. Other markets may not parallel the U.S. experience directly, but a U.K. trend (for example) can be compared with U.S. experience to create a rough estimate of where the U.K. market may end up.
International markets would also benefit from understanding the growth of online retail in the U.S. Here, the changes have been significant.
In 2010, online purchases of physical and digital books accounted for 27.5% of all retail sales. With the loss of Borders in the U.S. market, online retail’s share grew to 48.2% in 2012, and it seems likely to exceed 50% when the 2013 data is released. While there are market-specific forces driving some of the growth in online purchasing, the trend seems like one that publishers in other countries would want to track closely.
Finally, publishing data can be used to identify opportunities and risks, but that option comes with a few warnings. In a stable market, one in which formats, channels and categories evolve in a more or less predictable manner, it is okay to extrapolate from past performance (as I just did in a limited way to guess the share of online retail in 2013).
In less stable markets, where there are potentially signficant unknowns, extrapolations can and do fail. I’d contend that the current publishing market includes a range of potentially significant unknowns: future eBook sales as a share of the total market; demand for new and untracked formats; and the sales of untracked independently published titles, to name three.
In periods of disruptive change, scenario planning may be a better option. Scenarios can range from near-term expected (e.g., eBook sales level off) to more challenging or unexpected (e.g., a flexible digital format replaces most of the current market for tablets and e-readers). These are not treated as predictions but starting points for discussion: “If this happened, what might it mean for our industry and business?”
A fair share of the forward-looking posts I write about publishing implicitly invoke scenarios (the growth of reading as outlined in “An architecture of collaboration” is an example). I find them useful to promote and sometimes provoke discussion. That discussion can help businesses and even publishing as a whole cope with potentially dramatic changes by making the possibilities a consideration ahead of the time when they become realities.