January 18, 2012

Music and literature still kind of a big deal: HMV to increase vinyl sales


It’s often said that we in publishing can learn a lot from the music industry, where the impact of digitisation began to be felt a few years earlier. If that’s the case, publishers should be as heartened as record labels by the rise of vinyl sales in recent years: here’s evidence that the well-produced physical object still has its devotees. Nielsen SoundScan numbers tell us that, in the US, 2010 was the best year for vinyl since its sales figures began in 1991. Meanwhile in the UK sales of vinyl reportedly increased by 55% in the first six months of 2011. Depressingly, there were indications that sales were starting to drop off—in the US at least—in the latter half of last year, though it remains to be seen whether that trend will continue.

There’s good news from Blighty, meanwhile: The Quietus reports that HMV has announced plans to stock more vinyl. Of course, things are far from hunky dory for the chain, which has 252 stores and £160m of debt. They’re nothing if not determined, though, and seem to be building a promising reprioritisation into their recovery strategy. After a damaging Christmas period, in which they suffered an 8.1% drop in sales, a spokesman for the chain said:

“A lot of our customers have been asking us to increase the amount of racking we dedicate to music in-store and we’re pleased to say we’ll be doing a lot more of that soon – in fact we’re also planning to significantly increase our range of vinyl in quite a few locations as well.”

The spokesman also promised that the company would continue to champion physical music, despite a recent move to stock more video games and technological products.

They added: “Unlike singles, around 75% of albums are still sold in CD format, and a sizeable chunk of these are bought by customers who like to purchase them in-store. A lot of us talk about having a vibrant high street at the heart of the community, but that’s not going to happen by itself – if that’s what people want, then, along with buying online and downloading, they also need to support their local stores and specialist chains.”

Hear, hear. You might remember MobyLives commentary following the demise of Borders in the US last year. Central to the chain’s problem, Moby founder Dennis Johnson said, was the chain’s failure to value books as its most important product:

The tragedy is compounded by the depiction of Borders’ demise as being due essentially to the fact that people don’t want to buy print books in bookstores anymore. Giant chains like Barnes and Noble in the US, and Chapters Indigo in Canada, are using that canard like a smokescreen to sell fewer and fewer print books — yes, partly to get rid of some of that way over-priced real estate they bought during the nineties, and partly because margins are much better on Godiva chocolates, stationary goods, stuffed animals and ebook devices. Indigo has announced it will devote less than 50% of its floor space to books. B&N is headed in the same direction. (Why the major publishers don’t tell them that this makes them no longer a bookstore, eligible for a bookseller’s discounts, and must buy things non-returnable, like other specialty shops, is beyond me.)

This in turn, of course, is going to hurt publishers in their ability to support all their books — including ebooks. And on to writers, and so to readers.

Could it be that the lesson has been heeded in some quarters? Of course, HMV’s vinyl sales will remain a very small part of its overall takings, but the decision seems to indicate a shift in attitude, an awareness that the human race hasn’t overnight lost its interest in the art forms that have entertained it for millennia. There are parallels to be drawn with Waterstones: after taking over management of the chain last year—after the sale by none other than HMVJames Daunt scrapped the ancient, devaluing 3-for-2 offer on paperbacks, signalling that a revalorisation of the book would be central to the new ethos in stores.

For a long time, it’s been hard for publishers to talk about the pleasures and continued merits of the print book without sounding deluded or complacent. Maybe that’s changing though, with hardbacks, like vinyl, enjoying a new lease of life. Most heartening of all is the acknowledgment by major chains that digitisation might be less about eradicating traditional formats than about increasing consumer choice.

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.