Social media has encouraged the big books to get bigger. The recommendations of Facebook friends, online communities such as Goodreads and a raft of book podcasts, as well as the burgeoning festivals of writing and ideas have seen readers gravitating quickly to the hot books of the day.
Television and film tie-in successes such as Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies have spurred producers to actively seek book properties with a track record rather than generate new material; Moriarty’s large backlist surged when she was discovered by TV viewers. But the increasing proportion of sales going to the bestsellers has been at the expense of many other books that have failed to reach expectations, disappointing their authors and prompting profit-focused publishing companies to become more risk-averse. Across the world, the advances for authors, even some household names, have decreased as their sales have contracted.
It has been another decade of consolidation for the publishing industry with the international behemoths Penguin and Random House joining together in 2013. Conversely, there has been a growth in small publishing houses such as Melbourne’s Affirm Press (founded 2010) and the award-winning Brow Books (2016), a spin-off of literary magazine The Lifted Brow.
On the retail front, the 2011 collapse of the REDgroup, which owned the 125-year-old Angus & Robertson chain as well as Borders stores and Whitcoulls in New Zealand, saw the closure of 260 bookstores, leaving some towns and smaller cities without “bricks and mortar” bookstores. This was the biggest challenge to the book industry since the controversial introduction of the GST in 2000. Competition from offshore online retailers such as the Book Depository and Amazon and the rise of e-books were cited by as reasons for the retailer’s demise.
The remaining Australian chains, such as Dymocks, and a strong independent bookselling sector have fought to maintain their customer bases with lively in-store events and their own online retailing. Sydney online retailer Booktopia, founded 2004, saw sales reach over $130 million in the 2019 financial year, attracting both city-based online shoppers and those in regional areas without easy access to physical bookstores.
At the start of the decade, there was an expectation that e-books would replace print books. Amazon’s Kindle (2007) and Apple’s iPad (2010) sparked an initial flurry of excitement, especially from readers who consumed multiple books a week along with, surprise, mature folk with older eyes who found the screens were actually easier to read than print books. By the decade’s end, e-book sales had plateaued at around 20 per cent with the e-book effectively becoming a format choice (akin to opting for takeaways rather than a restaurant meal). They remain particularly popular among travellers who want to carry multiple books on the one device.
An unexpected spin-off of e-books has been a surge in self-publishing as would-be authors are no longer reliant on the publishing industry’s gatekeepers. Runaway successes among the self-published were snapped up by traditional publishers. E.L. James’ 2011 erotic BDSM novel Fifty Shades of Grey was picked up by Random House in early 2012 and had sold over 125 million copies worldwide, in 52 languages, by June 2015.
Fifty Shades spawned a raft of copycat erotic romance but by the end of the decade, op shops were refusing to accept secondhand copies as there was no re-sale market.
Audiobook sales are rising thanks to the smartphone. Although audio versions of bestselling books such as the Harry Potter series had long been available in expensive multi-CD sets (just the thing for a car journey with kids!), more affordable downloadable audiobooks have broadened the market. Providing a new income stream for actors, the audio version of 2017 Man Booker Prize winner Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders features a massive 166-person cast including David Sedaris, Susan Sarandon, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller and Don Cheadle.
An unexpected new market for audiobooks has been found in achievement-oriented young men who listen to business and self-improvement titles on the treadmill at the gym, often at 1.5 times speed to maximise their time. Audio retailer Audible is now commissioning Australian authors to write original fiction audiobooks.
Young men listen to audiobooks on the treadmill at the gym, often at 1.5 times speed.
The most surprising trend of the decade was the adult colouring book phenomenon of 2015 and 2016, which purported to encourage mindfulness. Food and drink moved beyond celebrity chefs and TV tie-ins to stylish illustrated books by lifestyle Instagrammers and bloggers, such as Lola Berry and Kayla Itsines, who offer food, juices, exercise and affirmations on the path to wellbeing.
While the cookbook retained its place as a gift (hello, Yotam Ottolenghi), home cooks, perhaps inspired by The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2011) by Marie Kondo, became more likely to rely on Googling recipes in the supermarket rather than buying cookbooks for personal use.
Children’s book sales have strengthened as everyone wants their kids off their iPads and reading books. This has been a decade of dominance for funny cartoon-illustrated books that parents and teachers hope might get those reluctant boys reading and amuse girls along the way. Australia’s multi-storey treehouse builders Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, the irreverent UK actor David Walliams (Billionaire Boy) and the US’s Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants) have been stars of the category.
In the young adult area, Twilight’s romance-vampire craze of the previous decade was replaced by videoblogger John Green’s “all the feels” The Fault in Our Stars (2012) which took teen romance into a cancer support group and became a 2014 movie. More adults started reading books written for teens, loving their simpler plot lines. Perhaps another sign of life in a hectic world.
Spectrum editor Shona Martyn is a former publishing director at HarperCollins and Random House. She has worked as a publishing scout for Lingo Pictures.
The stars of the decade
There’s money in finance. Scott Pape’s folksy personal finance title The Barefoot Investor was the book of the decade with sales of 1.26 million copies since its release in 2016, according to Nielsen BookScan data.
A 2018 follow-up, The Barefoot Investor for Families, has sold 217,576 copies to date. The combined retail value of the two titles is a staggering $34.35 million.
The other bigger winners of the decade are the dynamic kids’ book duo of Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton whose first eight titles in the ‘treehouse’ series – kicking off with The 13-Storey Treehouse in 2011 – have sold a combined 3.86 million copies with a value of $36.1 million; the star of Australian children’s picture books, Mem Fox (1.4 million copies, across three titles, to a value of $20.86 million) and Sydney’s queen of domestic noir Liane Moriarty (1.4 million copies, across four titles, to a value of $21 million).
Source: Copyright 2019, Nielsen BookScan, all editions of a title combined, data from December 27, 2009 to December 14, 2019.
Shona Martyn is Spectrum Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald