Irrational numbers

As I mentioned during the summer Bloomsbury has become something of a bellwether publisher for the sector, being the only big trade publisher releasing regular UK-specific financial reports. When it announced back in April that it was worried that print book sales would drop by 75% during the lockdown, there was a collective gasp; when it later reported that this had not been the case, we all felt a little cheerier. This week it revealed record results—profits in its first half (effectively comprising the period of lockdown and the summer) that it had not seen since 2008, when it was still in the final blush of the Harry Potter series.

As these things sometimes do, the news snowballed, with the BBC, in particular, becoming fixated by the notion that the nation had returned to reading. As Bloomsbury chief executive Nigel Newton put it: “As we cycled through the month[s] there became a real uptake in reading, perhaps people tired of watching streamed movies which they binged on to begin with and turned to books.” 

One should never knock back a good news story, but nevertheless this one merits a bit of unravelling.

It’s been clear for some time that the section of the business least in peril (next to Amazon perhaps) are the big publishers, or indeed any well-established publisher that can get books to customers across a broad selection of retailers. A portfolio approach to publishing has also helped. One publisher said to me earlier this year that they’d always lamented that they didn’t have more high-end fiction on their lists, but actually right now they were glad of it. Now is not the moment to be in the tough to sell areas.

Also notable in the Bloomsbury press release was its affirmation that “online book sales and e-book revenues were significantly higher”—hardly surprising, for half the financial period bookshops were Covid-closed. Nevertheless, online book sales were already set to take up a bigger slice of the pie, and the lockdown will only have accentuated that trend. As Blackwell’s digital director Kieron Smith wrote this week, Enders Analysis has estimated that there were four years of e-commerce acceleration within the first three months of lockdown. “People are not going back to the high street any time soon, and when they do their buying habits will inevitably include a heavier mix of e-commerce.”

For Bloomsbury, it means that more than 30% of its business is now from digital content sales (including from within its academic division, where e-book adoption also accelerated), compared with 19% in its past full-year period. I do not know what the change towards online sales away from bookshop business has been, but according to publishers I’ve spoken to the swing has not yet corrected itself.

There is an upside: where there are readers there is hope, and as our forthcoming Bookshop Heroes feature will show (next week), there are plenty of booksellers out there making a difference every single day. Their contribution remains substantial. It goes beyond the mere numbers and, at the risk of repeating myself, needs now to be secured for tomorrow and tomorrow.