Bookselling unmasked

If 2020’s UK print book sales were buoyant, the first half of 2021 looks to have been still better—as far as can be deduced given the data gaps caused by lockdown. 

Nielsen BookScan estimated 2020’s overall sales to be up over 5% in both volume and value on 2019; this year, going on data from mid-March to the start of July (admittedly a period which can also be assumed to have included a “bookshop reopening bounce”), BookScan’s stats are up by 8%—again, that’s against 2019, as there are no concrete figures to compare against for Covid-hit 2020. A strong rise has also been reported in the US, with NPD outlets seeing an 18.5% uplift, but that’s been measured against 2020. 

What one can say with some certainty is that there is no sign that the softening of restrictions in recent weeks has so far dampened down the surge of reading inspired by the pandemic—and once again, adult fiction is an area showing big gains: in the UK, the category is up 15% this year thanks to heartfelt big sellers from the likes of Maggie O’Farrell, Matt Haig and Kazuo Ishiguro.

But the data also comes in the same week as warnings on both sides of the Atlantic of the major challenges that are facing the industry’s international supply chain—in particular shipping shortages, but also other freight issues, Covid check hold-ups and Brexit delays. For all industries, the flow of goods around the world is now disrupted, pushing prices up and as far as the book trade is concerned adding extra time pressures on publication dates, particularly those co-ordinated internationally. Logistically, the industry will have its work cut out to keep systems flowing this autumn, to support the momentum of sales through to Christmas; and these are not problems which will swiftly resolve in 2022 either. 

Shop flaws
Unless there is another sudden volte-face (never to be discounted, given this government’s record), Covid restrictions in England will lift on Monday and it will be left up to individuals to decide their own approach to social distancing and face masks. This leaves retailers in an invidious position, aware that in enclosed spaces the virus is a risk, but without legal clarity on whether they are entitled to insist on customers wearing masks (unless medically exempt) in order to protect staff and other customers—and of course with no desire to impose on shopfloor workers the task of confronting those who aren’t prepared to do so. 

Waterstones’ decision to publicly “encourage” mask-wearing but not absolutely require it, as per the government’s guidance from Monday onwards, has not pleased those at either end of the spectrum of social media opinion—anti-maskers have criticised it for infringing the personal liberties of customers, while others argue it’s not doing enough to protect workers—but it seems, in a chaotic and unfair situation, a workable middle ground. Booksellers in Scotland are fortunate that, for now at least, masks will remain mandatory and they are spared a similar dilemma.