Saturday, 9 June 2012

The stars might lie but the numbers never do

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)

For some reason, a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading over the last week or so have involved numbers, and I don’t just mean the rating of my various books on Amazon. Some have implied bad news – of which more later – and others quite the reverse.
            Let’s start with some bald figures. In the United Kingdom, back in 2001, roughly 110,000 new books were published, and in all a total of some 140 million books were sold. If we then jump forward to 2010, the number of new books released jumps to about 150,000, and around 229 million sales were recorded. So that’s good news, obviously: more books had been published in 2010 and far more books were sold.
            Well, not exactly. Certainly you can’t argue with the numbers. In that period of time, both sales and the volume of books produced increased. The trouble is that the second date was 2010, a mere two years ago, but in that time things have changed quite considerably.
            According to Nielsen Bookscan, the sales of physical books – hardback and paperback – fell significantly in 2011, and are continuing to fall. To put some numbers to that, in the run-up to Christmas that year 10% less books were sold than in the previous year. In 2011 book sales overall fell by over 7% to just over 209 million over the previous year, and the value of those sales also fell by over 6% to just under £1.6 billion. That still sounds like a hell of a lot of money for the entire industry – it’s equivalent to the bonuses paid out to several bankers, certainly – but in reality that was the lowest amount spent on printed books since 2005. And every indication is that the figures for 2012 will be even worse.
            So doom and gloom are all around us, obviously.
            Actually, no, not really. There are probably two principal reasons for the drop-off in sales of books in Britain. The first is quite obvious. Thanks to a startling combination of crass stupidity and naked greed on the part of the banking industry, mainly the American banking industry, the world is now in the grip of a serious recession, and people in all walks of life and in every country are having to consider quite seriously how they spend their money. Books, though undeniably important and, in my opinion, perhaps the cheapest form of decent entertainment available anywhere, are not an essential purchase for anybody.
            The second reason is actually a one word answer: Kindle. This cheap and convenient device is, I genuinely believe, the single most important advance in the history of publishing since the invention of the printing press. It really is that significant.
The Kindle isn’t the only ebook reader, obviously, but it’s probably the most important because it’s sold and promoted by the world’s largest retailer, Amazon. Another number: Amazon’s market capitalization is roughly $80 billion. To put that into perspective, the annual turnover of the Penguin Group is about 1.5% of that figure.
            So while sales of physical books are clearly declining, the number of electronic books sold, and the devices to read them on, are increasing rapidly. At the moment, ebooks comprise about 20% of the English language book market, and this number is growing fast. That means that out of every ten books sold, two of them will be Kindle downloads, or the equivalent on other platforms. But mainly they’ll be Kindles.
            According to YouGov, over the Christmas period in 2011, 1.33 million ebook readers were purchased, 92% of them being Kindles, meaning that in the United Kingdom some one in every forty adults either bought one for themselves or to give away as a present. That’s a startling number, but it’s backed up by ebook sales figures for the same period.
            Hachette reported that they sold 100,000 ebooks on Christmas Day alone, while HarperCollins claimed the same sales figure for both the UK and international markets combined. Random House reported 300,000 ebooks sold over the festive season. So from just these three retailers, well over half a million ebooks were sold in that very short period.
            And that, I believe, is a very good indicator of future trends. One of the many, many advantages of an ebook reader over the purchase of a conventional book is immediacy. You can sit there in bed, access the Amazon website, see a book you like, buy it and start reading it, all in well under a minute. And in most cases it will cost you about the same as a cup of coffee.
Compare that to the ‘old way’ of buying a book – getting out the car, driving to a shopping centre or high street, finding a bookshop, eventually tracking down the novel you want to read, then handing over a £10 note and getting a remarkably little change before driving back home – and the advantages are startlingly obvious. And a basic Kindle costs about the same as a dozen full price novels, so it’s cheap by any standards.
            Finally, I mentioned bankers a couple of times in this blog, and I’ve been talking numbers as well. A banker friend of mine – he’s now retired and, if he had his way, he would have most of the current crop of idiots running the banking system taken out and shot – pointed out to me how little idea most people, including politicians, have about the size of the economic problems we face. And in particular what the word ‘trillion’ actually means.
            He produced quite a neat way of explaining it. Start with a concept that everybody will be able to appreciate. Suppose you’re about to buy a new house, and it’s going to cost £250,000, a quarter of a million pounds, a big number, but one that’s easy to comprehend. Now suppose that you decide to buy four such houses, not just one, so your total outlay will be £1 million. And further suppose that you’re going to buy all four houses on the same day, so on that date you will spend £1 million. Now comes the interesting bit. Let’s also suppose that your finances will permit you to buy four such houses every working day of the year. There are roughly 250 working days in a year, so your spending will amount to £250 million in that year. You should be so lucky!
            So the question is: if you maintain that rate of spending, buying £1 million worth of property every working day, how many years will it take before you’ve spent £1 trillion? Answers on a postcard, please.
            Let me put you out of your misery. If you spent money at the rate of £1 million a day, £250 million every year, it would take you 4,000 years before you’d spent £1 trillion.
So what?
So as of May 2012, the total public debt of the United States of America was just under $16 trillion, and has been increasing by well over $1 trillion every year since 2008.
And that gives some idea of the mountain the world is going to have to climb over the next few years.

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