On 5 December,  an international conference on ‘Common challenges’ for small and medium publishers in Europe was held at the Rome Book Fair in the framework of Aldus project. A panel of European Publishers composed of Carlo Gallucci (Gallucci Editore, Italy), Diego Guida (President of the Small Publishers Group at the Italian PA), Sarah Lapalu (L’Association, France), Jordi Nadal (Plataforma Editorial, Spain) and Kate Wilson (Nosy Crow, UK) addressed the issue of visibility for small publishers in sales channels, looking into the relationship between promotion and distribution in a changing ecosystem and presenting a series of innovative practices. The Aldus programme at Più Libri Più Liberi is available here.

The event was introduced by Ricardo Franco Levi, President of the Italian Publishers Association, who welcomed the participants and the panellists and stressed the growing importance of the international dimension of Rome Book Fair, confirmed by the European focus chosen for this conference, opening the professional programme. Carlo Gallucci, who also moderated the panel, introduced his company as a small children’s book publisher, a sector he said was still robust, and hoped would remain so – something that will require having many new young readers. After presenting the other speakers, he presented some data about the book market in Europe: figures about the publishing turnover in the main European markets in the 3 years until 2017 show signs of recovery in Italy and Spain after some difficult times during the crisis, fairly consistent growth in the UK and partly in France, and a slightly decreasing trend in Germany. The reading index paints a varied picture, with Italy at the bottom with 57% of readers; France leads with 91%, followed by the UK at 86%, Spain at 66% and Germany at 60%.

The speakers panel

The speakers panel

Kate Wilson, Managing Director at Nosy Crow, children’s publisher in the UK, also opened by providing a market overview. She started with some data on where books are sold in the UK, looking at the print side:; as for e-books, these are sold by e-retailers, which in the UK now means basically Amazon, as the internet giant bought up basically all remaining competitors and has a market share of close to 100%. For print books, a third of them are sold via Amazon (the share seems to be stabilising). Interestingly, the proportion of internet sales plus book clubs and direct sales has remained the same overall along the years, but basically all of it now is made of online sales. For small and medium publishers, it’s an opportunity: the bookshelf online is limitless. The question is how to get consumers to know your book is out there. The online space, argued Mrs Wilson, is somehow ultra-democratic: anyone has access to it; this also means that anyone can be a publisher (even in print, though more in digital). The way you compete in this space is also different from any other, she explained.

Some 28% of print books are sold via bookstore chains. The most important is now Waterstones, which has undergone a big change since 2011, when the company came under the leadership of a bookseller by background, who shifted the focus away from discounts; before they had tried to compete with Amazon on prices, a strategy that cannot work for a retailer with a high-street presence, whereas now they focus on their consumers appreciating the experience of a nice bookshop. Independent bookshops – of which there are fewer than 1,000 left in the UK – channel only 7% of sales, but according to Mrs Wilson the ones that survived are amazing: they incorporate cafes, organise events, are generally very energetic and are part of their community. Another 7% of sales comes via bargain bookshops; there aren’t many in London, but outside the capital this is often the only place people can buy a book in a town, also due to income disparities across the country. This kind of channel diminishes the sense of value of books (as these are often sold for 1 Pound). Supermarkets have a 12% market share; they hold a tiny range of titles but make huge sales, offering deep discounts. They are an important channel for Nosy Crow: if on the one hand they are in a position to ask for big discounts, they also have a strong infrastructure, with hundreds of stores.

Mrs Wilson then showed where print books are sold in the UK by category. For example, 2/3 of adult fiction is sold online; the proportion is much lower for children’s books, probably because parents want to browse the books before the purchase, kids don’t buy online, and parents want to share the selection experience with their kids.

Mr Gallucci picked up on the Amazon issue: the US retailer is a big window for publishers, but it is also disproportionately powerful in comparison with any small and medium publisher (and just about any publisher). He said it was comforting to learn that the market was stabilising, and explained that also in Italy neighbourhood bookstores were reappearing, with strategies not based on competing on prices.

Sarah Lapalu described the French situation as similar to the ones thus far depicted, with a few big concentrated groups and many small and medium publishers coexisting in the market. She highlighted the fixed book price regime (as enshrined by the Lang Law) as one very specific feature of the French market, which in her opinion helped maintain a full and healthy bookstore network and uphold diversity and the quality of creation. In the last 10 years, she recounted, the number of publishing houses doubled in France, many of them being small and medium ones; their books are found in bookshops, but most titles sell fewer than 1,000 copies, and many fewer than 100.

Mrs Lapalu presented her company as an association, founded in the 1990s, at a time when a lot of publishers wanted to offer an alternative to mainstream comics. The founders of L’Association aspired to be professional and become recognised; they managed to establish a strong network of bookstores that followed their work and alternative approach and catalogue. They got together to cooperate, created an organisation to do self-distribution (not via intermediaries) and asked bookstores to buy books directly and without returns. Amazon remains their biggest client, though.

Jordi Nadal talked about independent publishing in Spain, and what his company does there to survive, as he put it. The start wasn’t a great one, in fact, since they created the company in 2007: the worst time ever to enter into publishing in Spain, as the market lost 30% in the 10 years starting in 2008, due to the crisis. Indeed, as he explained, out of 34 publishing houses created in 2007 in Spain, Plataforma Editorial is currently the largest, while 8 of them have closed ever since.

Mr Nadal stressed the importance of data and data analysis, a cumbersome task that is very much needed to make informed decisions. In a market context where there are 682 publishing houses, with thin average margins, , with 300 of them generating less than 200,000 € in sales yearly, small publishers require a lot of energy. Nonetheless, Mr Nadal argued, publishing houses bring knowledge to society, as well as hope; the more good books are read, the more hope there is. All in all, he argued, you need to be very good to make any money; the book sector needs the best people to remain successful, keep up the good job. At least, the market is now slightly recovering. There are some big companies, some big distributors like Amazon; for a small publisher, the challenge is to “be the third one annoying them”. This takes commitment, luck, talent, and most of all courage, according to Mr Nadal.

Granted, the Spanish language book market includes Latin America; however, explained Mr Nadal, you need a big investment to break through there, and face some criticalities. In Spain, on the other hand, there are difficulties with the high number of distributors and high rates of return of books. Amazon and Casa del Libro are at the top, while the share of Corte Inglés is decreasing, and Fnac is shifting away from book sales.

Getting back to the role of publishers, Mr Nadal maintained that publishers are successful because they discover talent and work with passion, and reasoned that their role in society was becoming more and more important, since in the age of information overload they parse information to bring out the good. He invited publishers to highlight that aspect, arguing that in a way books should be more expensive. He illustrated some strategies adopted by his company in this sense: they we plant trees for every title they publish, donate books to schools – households with fewer than 20 books have a higher probability of children failing at school, in those with more than 200 kids have significantly higher chances to succeed, according to studies. In addition, Plataforma Editorial relies on both B2B and B2B2C sales: companies that then sell to their employees, clients. Mr Nadal closed his contribution once again recommending to publishers to “have fun, earn money, be brave”.

Diego Guida explained that this kind of considerations had inspired the event, and the broader reflection in the Aldus framework, aimed at launching a dialogue, establishing a network, looking into common issues for small and medium publishers in Europe. Many issues are indeed common, he insisted, even in markets with important differences. Spain and the UK can tap into a large language pool, but with different characteristics. Italy had a good book market until 2009, close to 3 billion €, then lost some 10% during the crisis, and is now in recovery, with small and medium publishers spearheading the offer, and so-called mega-sellers on the wane; independent bookstores are being cannibalised, while the 3 main bookstore chains in the country own some points of sale. He came back on the notion that books are a special product, which needs a very broad and varied retail network; otherwise there’s a risk to see a hampering of diversity and of the circulation of ideas.

In the ensuing debate, the question came up of how small and medium publishers can bring their books to the public and generate sufficient sales to be sustainable and keep supporting new creations. Mrs Wilson brought the example of how Waterstones supports small and medium publishers, via its book awards and more. She stated that every book they (and any publisher) published was an innovation, a new product; she added that small and medium publishers had opportunities for innovating that the big ones did not have, due to their greater flexibility and freedom to risk. She explained that Nosy Crow’s approach to the market was international: for relatively little money you can go to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and more, and there you can be visible, get your shot. The UK is small, but with a massive language basin, Mrs Wilson stressed, calling on publishers to think how to make the world their market. She also recommended several ways to “make oneself bigger”: collaborative working, partnership publishing, using social media – a great way of knowing and speaking to your audience, which for a small publisher is smaller, which in turn allows for greater focus, and thus a more direct relationship; she insisted on the importance of recognising one’s difference (focus), making it an advantage, rather than trying to badly mimic the big ones.

Mrs Lapalu agreed on the effectiveness of collaborative work, and recommended focusing on distribution, looking for alternatives also without necessarily trying to make profits immediately – another option offered by a flexible approach.

Mr Nadal suggested bringing authors to the fore, making them speak to their audiences; organising awards, events, acting as a communications company. He spoke of diversification, of finding new ways to sell content – he made the example of Plataforma Editorial’s authors being contracted to produce educational videos for big banks in Spain. Mr Guida echoed him by recalling the successful initiative of the Italian Publisher Association aimed at donating books to school libraries.