A most extraordinary year in books

A most extraordinary year in books

If you have been into your local bookshop recently, you will have noticed the beginnings of an extraordinary time for readers.  We have had our ‘super Tuesday’ where an unprecedented number of books have been released in the lead up to Christmas 2020. The outbreak of COVID-19 resulted in many publishers scrambling to change their schedules, producing in a bumper array of choice for book lovers and a sense of hope for an industry that has adjusted to the pandemic with great ingenuity.

Whether it is master crime writer Jane Harper’s much anticipated The Survivors, or the wildly popular Trent Dalton’s second novel, All Our Shimmering Skies, the list of authors with new books out now is a dream for book lovers. Australian stories and authors feature strongly, with books from authors such as Sophie Laguna, Richard Flanagan, Craig Silvey and Kate Mildenhall being piled high in bookshops across the country. The same phenomenon has played out in the UK and the USA as publishers compressed their programs and made decisions on the fly about what COVID-19 would mean for the book industry.

We now know what the pandemic has meant for book sales. They are up significantly when you look at Nielsen Bookscan numbers, which show an increase in sales this week of nearly 14%. There is a confluence of factors at play, most logically that people have been forced to spend more time at home. I love TV and movies as much as anyone, but there is only so much I can take. YouTube is interesting enough, but I have a lingering suspicion as I go down a YouTube rabbit hole that my brain is atrophying. What I reach for, once I’ve wrenched my scorched retinas from whatever screen I’ve been umbilically linked to, is a book, and it has been a revelation.

I tore through the 900 pages of Neal Stevenson’s Seveneves in no time, surviving exposure to more information about orbital mechanics than I could ever have imagined. I devoured Kate Mildenhall’s The Mother Fault, caught up in a near future Australia of shocking realism with the attendant nightmares of micro-chip tracking and government surveillance. I read the rich and bizarre story of The Trauma Cleaner, and an advanced copy of Richard Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, both books that made me grapple with existential questions about who we are and what kind of life is worth living. Flanagan was kind enough to speak with me about The Living Sea at a Zoom event for Australian booksellers, and I can happily report that the book is brilliant, and that he is, as Chekhov said of stories, an axe to part our frozen sea.

It’s not just me that is consuming all these books. Australians were reading 20% more in July, and said they would continue to do so after lockdowns ended. Anecdotally, everyone I know also says they are reading more, and it seems readers are consuming more, and lapsed readers are rediscovering the joy of books. So with all this demand, the industry must be fine, right? As with all stories, there are multiple perspectives and diverging realities.

Remember airplanes? I have some vestigial memory of the tubular interior, but never gave their cargo hold much thought. There is not airfreighting of books into Australia for this Christmas. If it’s not here or in a container on a ship now it’s not going to be available. Extremely limited capacity has made airfreight uneconomic and altered the supply chain. Demand forecasting with limited stock is hard for small businesses like bookshops as they have credit limits and cash flow to manage. Even if their credit and cash were unlimited many of them do not have the physical space to stock what might amount to six months worth of stock. Publishers large and small are competing with a market filled with quality product, potentially cannibalising themselves and crowding out some excellent books, all of which points to a acute bottleneck around December 25.

In order to sell all those books we need bookshops operating at peak efficiency. They will be, but within the constraints of COVID-19 restrictions and consumers own risk profiles. Anyone who has ordered anything online recently knows it can be a slow and infuriating wait. This Christmas our postal and other delivery services will be stretched to their limits, our roads are clogged with vans fulfilling our online obsession. Guaranteeing online order windows will be difficult and authors and publishers will be relying on our network of independent bookshops. We will be advocating for consumers to not just shop local, but shop early.  Usually the week before Christmas generates a majority of a bookshops December sales, but this is not a normal Christmas. Melbourne’s lockdown has been brutal, and across the country CovidSafe plans will limit numbers in retail spaces.

There is much for readers to be excited about. The quality of books published lead me to believe that this will be our best Christmas ever. The people that get paid last are the authors, and there are no books and no industry without them. Australian authors earn their best royalties from independent bookshops who don’t deep discount a limited range of titles, so let’s hope we are safe and sensible as this terrible year enters its final quarter and our wonderful network of independent bookshops thrives. We have the books, the shops, and the staff. It’s up to us now, readers, to take advantage of rich offerings in this most unusual year in books.

R. M. Egan is chief executive officer of the Australian Booksellers Association.