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A turn-up for the books

Publishers are focusing on quality rather than quantity, but predicting trends in a fluctuating market is a risky business, writes Alison Walsh

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Book publishing has always been unpredictable, a mix of alchemy, luck and intuition. Some books can become global hits; others, for which publishers had high hopes, fade away. A sure-fire celebrity book can flounder, a surprise bestseller can capture readers' imaginations.

So, what can we look forward to in the world of books over the next year or two? And who will be the winners and losers in the game of what one publisher referred to as "legal gambling"?

The inexorable rise of the audiobook is certainly a big story. In the UK, audiobooks surged forward in 2018, recording a rise in sales of a whopping 43% to £69m, according to the Publishers Association. At the same time, sales of print books declined by 5.4%. So, over the next few years, will this pattern continue?

Yes, according to Juliet Mabey, co-owner of Oneworld Publications, a London-based independent publisher of, among many others, Paul Lynch and Orchid and the Wasp's Caoilinn Hughes.

But she adds: "It's quite a risky area of publishing. There's a very high upfront investment, which makes it particularly risky."

Furthermore, any marketing the publisher does for the print edition can benefit the audio hugely, even if they don't own the rights, so, "there's quite a strong sense among many publishers that they really should keep all the intellectual property of a project".

Interestingly, the rise in audio has been matched by a decline in e-book market share, down again in 2018 for the fourth year in a row.

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Ruth Tross, publishing director of digital publisher Bookouture, is sanguine: "When e-books first launched, they grew very quickly. We're definitely at the point where that is evening out."

Much depends on category, with genre fiction working solidly in digital formats: according to Forbes magazine's Adam Rowe, 70% of genre fiction purchases in 2017 were e-books - and a lot of these were self-published.

As Tross says: "If you look at the Amazon top 100 in the UK and US, the self-published market, in terms of readership, is probably larger than people think it is."

And for those who might be sniffy about e-books, Tross points to the phenomenal success of Irish crime writer Patricia Gibney, whose debut, The Missing Ones, sold 100,000 copies in e-book, and she has gone on to publish six more.

Her secret? "People who discover her through book four, or book one, or whichever way they come to her, it's instantaneous, it's all right there. There's less differentiation in the digital market between what's new and what's old - if it sounds good, you'll buy it," explains Tross.

And what about what they're reading? Well, when it comes to fiction, according to Mabey, "there definitely is a problem. Someone from a big publisher in the UK with a prizewinning literary list said that, 10 years ago, if a novel was selling badly, it would sell two thousand; now, it's two hundred." Gulp.

So, publishers are having to work harder than ever to make fiction stand out.

"Some publishers are doing three rounds of proofs, starting out with a hardback, then maybe a quirky paperback, then a final proof with lovely quotes all over it and a great cover. Publishers are aware of how difficult it is to attract readers and how much effort they have to put into it," says Mabey.

According to Claire Pelly, editor at Penguin Ireland, curation is the key: "We only publish 15 or 20 new books a year. We're quite selective - we don't want to flood the market, because if we flood the market with lots of books, it's diminishing returns almost.

"We want to concentrate on the best books and making sure they get the best slots (in the bookshops). It's a focus on quality, rather than quantity."

As to the genres that will be enthralling us over the next few years?

"I feel that people have been talking about domestic noir being saturated for about six years and it hasn't happened," says Tross. Furthermore, according to Pelly, "authors who were traditionally women's fiction, like Adele Parks or Lisa Jewell, have moved into the psychological suspense genre".

She is certainly backing that trend as she publishes a debut by Catherine Talbot next April, A Good Father, about family annihilation.

As far as Mabey is concerned, "the sweet spot between literary and women's fiction" is key.

"From a bookseller's point of view, those are the books they can really get behind and make them Book of the Month and sell in big numbers."

She cites new Irish talent Frances Macken's You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here as an example.

And diversity is certainly more than a buzzword for publishers.

"I think it's very, very important, particularly in the world we live in right now, that publishers publish a wide range of everything," Mabey says.

Tross agrees: "The onus is on publishers to be telling the kind of stories that people want to come to. We can't be lazy, or complacent, about it.

"If we are telling good stories about people's lives, then novels will continue."

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