This may not destroy you

In Michaela Coel’s excellent BBC TV series “I May Destroy You”, her character Arabella’s journey concludes in a bookshop with the launch of her self-published book. There is a hidden message for us: Arabella can do without a publisher; what she cannot do without is the bookshop. Or to put it another way, when Ireland’s Laureate na nÓg  Áine Ní Ghlinn talks about promoting Irish-language publishing, it is in bookshop windows that she hopes to see the change.

There has never been a better moment to make the case for the bookshop. For thanks to Covid-19, the high street bookshop is under threat, in a way publishers are not. “We need to ensure high street bookselling survives this period renewed and not mortally wounded,” wrote Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers Association, in a column published earlier this week.

The thrust of the argument is this: do not get bedazzled by current trading, this next period (however long it lasts) is going to be tough as shops face a high street undergoing radical re-engineering, customers only warily returning, near-sighted landlords, and a government whose inaction over rates borders on negligence.

Even the upside, an autumn absolutely rammed with top-tier titles, brings with it its own challenges, not least because there is as yet no surety what the winter holds. Having shut suddenly in late March, leaving stock unsold and potentially non-returnable, booksellers must now consider how to order for a festive season that the fates may yet conspire to shorten.

The return of high street bookselling could scarcely have gone better up to now, of course. Footfall may have been compromised, particularly in city centres, but book buying has been encouraging. People want to shop, and they want to do so in bookshops. This is borne out by the Nielsen figures. Since bookshops began reopening in the week ending 20th June, the print market has earned £126.2m through Nielsen BookScan, up 19% on the same four weeks in 2019, with the staggered reopenings in England, Wales and Scotland providing timely boosts to the overall market. In Ireland, and where Nielsen did not go offline, 2020 trails 2019 by just 1.8% in volume and 1.9% in value.

For publishers, the news is even better. Compared to the wider economy it is clear that the decline in book sales has been slighter than expected, and in today’s multiformat world, some presses may even end the year in growth. In turn, the competition over new titles has intensified for, as I’ve said before, there is no crisis too big that cannot be improved by a new book. And long may this last.

But here’s the rub. Much will be lost if bookshops flounder, not least this current momentum. Booksellers are the medium through which authors find their readers; we can talk of serendipity, or discoverability; of platforms and safe spaces; of readings and recommendations. But now is not the time to think about what bookshops do for us, but instead to imagine what we can, and must, do for them.