Moving the goalposts

Another week, another shifting of goalposts. News that England’s current Covid restrictions will continue until 19th July, with Scotland expected broadly to follow suit, is a blow but not as devastating for the book trade as it is for some other industries: Independent Bookshop Week, launching on Saturday, will still celebrate our shops, twinning with indie publishers for a raft of initiatives; literary festivals preparing a first return to real-life events may go ahead under strict precautions; and the Women’s Prize for Fiction will still take place, but on its sensibly pre-organised second-choice date in September.

For staff who really need that return to the office, or for bookshops situated in vacant city centres, it’s a disappointing stumble on our staggering journey back to a more normal world; but while the prime minister may not inspire confidence by his odd choice of words to describe the intended finality of the July easing date—“terminal”, “irrevocable”, as though the Delta variant can be deterred by the sheer power of emphatic language—this latest delay could forestall worse pain to come. Coming fast over the horizon, from August onwards, is a hefty autumn season: books from Sally Rooney, Mallory Blackman, Richard Osman, Jamie Oliver, Michaela Coel and Bob Mortimer. The last thing anyone needs is more autumn lockdowns.  

However difficult, we have grown used to living with uncertainty over the past 16 months, and there are many unknowns as to what our emergence from the pandemic will look like. The upsurge of reading during 2020’s lockdowns has been followed a spring “retail spending boom”, says Waterstones m.d. James Daunt, powered by consumers who are earning money but have still had no opportunity to splash it on foreign holidays or big nights out. Some business may now be shifting to physical retail from online, but the market has been consistently up on 2019 figures (the only available comparison) all spring. Reading is a habit, and strong sales now bode well for a continuation of book-buying even as other forms of entertainment return to compete; but the effect on consumer spending of the ending of furlough this autumn—expected to bring a round of job losses—will be another variable in the mix. As ever, nothing can be taken for granted, and in the pressure of autumn releases, some books will lose out.

But the pandemic has given us new skills and new perspectives. At The Bookseller’s Marketing & Publicity Conference this week, I was impressed anew by how much campaigners had advanced their work over the challenges of the past year: switching to online events and new models for author tours; refining and developing their use of social media, with its opportunities and high-profile pitfalls; guiding authors on engaging with the new digital environment while coping with the “always on” danger of working during lockdown. As we look to continue a successful, already super-busy summer, and start preparations for another packed autumn, in uncertain circumstances, we will all need to refocus, calling on skills old and new to navigate the next phase.