Future historians of the book business will have a problem when they look back on 2020. As this week’s Publishers Association Yearbook statistics show, the industry went into the period in full bloom, off the back of what PA c.e.o. Stephen Lotinga calls the “strongest year in the history of publishing”. And then corona came; bookshops shuttered, small presses fought for their lives; and for others, it wasn’t actually too bad.
From the perspective of the bigger publishers, the dilemma is broadly summed up by Bloomsbury, which went into the lockdown anticipating that print sales would decline by 75%, but came out of it not only with a 28% rise in year-on-year sales at its consumer business, but also a 9% rise in print. “It is not true to say we have had a great pandemic. We have had a terrible one followed by a good one,” chief executive Nigel Newton said this week.
Part of the reason, Lotinga says, is “people’s ongoing need and desire for books”. Few crises are not, in some way, improved by a book, either the reading, writing, publishing or selling of one. Indeed, it is difficult to think of another creative activity for which participation is so open and ubiquitous, but which also provides for the livelihoods of so many. Books are not just our bag; they are also one of only a few essential consumer products.
The PA report also shows book publishing is battle hardened, accustomed to different formats and alternative routes to consumers. Across the whole of publishing, digital now accounts for close to 50% of all sales, and export more than half, and while some point to the continuing decline in fiction sales as an Achilles’ heel, it is difficult to read too much into numbers that include only estimates of the wider e-book market, including Amazon Publishing and self-publishing. Here, as the PA acknowledges, the challenge is around data collection, not reading habits.
Two things hover on the horizon, though: the nature of the Brexit deal (if it happens) as well as the ongoing row with China. Sales into Europe are almost twice as valuable as the next-biggest region: this happens to be East and South Asia, which is also among the fastest-growing areas. Thanks to corona, there is also now a new challenge for those publishers (mainly academic) servicing the institutional marketplace, with money and students likely to be in shortening supply. As a new report, The Impact of Covid-19 on the UK Publishing Industry, states: the real economic fallout will only be known after universities reopen in September, but many publishers on this side of the fence fear the worst in the short-term.
Perhaps the biggest problem for future pundits will be assessing whether the durability of the sector was about planning or just good luck. Publishers tend to get chastised for what they have not done, but are rarely praised for what they did. Covid-19 has been the biggest challenge of our lives, and while survival will be considered success, there has also been an opportunity to examine the fundamentals. And these, as they were in 2019, remain positive and hopeful.