For a while last year I became obsessed by the number 11. For 11% was the figure Nielsen estimated the print book market declined during the first 12-week period, when Amazon and others could continue to trade but bookshops could not. But I now have a new number to think about: eight. For 8% is the increase in the value of the book market last week, according to Nielsen, when compared to the equivalent week in 2020, meaning that more books were sold in a week when high street bookshops were closed than in a past week when they were open.
Of course, year-on-year comparisons can be fraught with error—mid-March 2020 was an unusually flat time for books, as readers turned to the news for a sense of what was to come, but even measured against 2019 there is an uplift of 5%. It is, too, hardly news that the market has been surging since lockdown, and we might consider this number as just an indication of how well Amazon, W H Smith, supermarkets and retailer website—from Waterstones and Blackwell’s, to Wordery and Bookshop.org—have been doing during a period when book purchasers have been funnelled in one direction. Just this week, the trade’s official publisher-barometer Bloomsbury told investors that it expected its full-year sales and profits (up to end February 2021) to be “significantly” ahead of current market forecasts—the second time it has revised its fortunes upwards in a matter of just two months.
Still, 8% is quite the surge when you consider the number of bookshops not currently operating from their stores, and it troubles me, just as the number 11 did back in the old days. High street bookshops, along with retail in general, are facing an existential challenge—I think one even bigger than that which they saw off in June 2020. According to the Local Data Company (LDC), there was a net loss of 11,391 outlets across the retail, restaurant and leisure sectors in 2020, with LDC predicting that with government support lessening, the situation will get worse before it gets better for high streets. There is also uncertainty over when shoppers will return, and if they do, what new habits they will have adopted. We know that bookshops are well loved and that browsing is a profoundly important activity for readers, one that, along with bookseller recommendations, makes the book market a healthier place for all. We know too that publishers and authors rely on shops, and even though they have survived for much of 2020 without them, they will do a lot to save them.
Over the next few weeks, we must do what we can, for as our Lead Story shows, there is much to do. Last week I suggested to Bloomsbury that it use its authors to send a simple #ChooseBookshops message to readers on social media, and it has turned the idea into a video featuring Khaled Hosseini, Madeline Miller and Ann Patchett that will launch on 12th April. Other publishers I spoke to, such as Canongate, HarperCollins, PRH, Hachette and S&S expressed support and are planning similar initiatives. I encourage all to follow and use this moment for bookshops as our moment to step up.
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