Nevertheless, they persisted

This week the Publishers Association released full-year sales numbers for 2020 showing that the invoiced value of UK publisher sales of books, journals and rights/coeditions combined rose 2% to £6.4bn, with consumer publishing sales up 7% to £2.1bn. In a normal year this would be something to crow about; in a pandemic year the PA—perhaps sensibly—described publishing as “incredibly resilient”, noting that for high street booksellers and authors, the year was not such a hit.

The numbers themselves should come as little surprise given that from June 2020 onwards it was clear that publishers were having a better time of it than just about anyone else in the entertainment sector (save perhaps for Amazon, Audible, and streaming services such as Netflix).  Nevertheless, the media coverage was generous, with talk of a 16% fiction surge (thanks Richard Osman, Maggie O’Farrell and Douglas Stuart) and readers that have fallen back in love with reading (as well as listening, up 37%). 

The wrinkle, as some noted, was the 6% fall in print book sales, which the Guardian, among others, mistreated as a consequence of bookshops being closed for extended periods. Actually, the print book market for consumer titles grew 4% overall and by 5% in the UK alone, a figure that is within touching distance of Nielsen BookScan’s full-year estimate of 5.5%. The real decline in print book sales came from the education (down 24%) and academic (-13%) sectors, where Covid-19 accelerated an expected and in some ways not unwelcome shift to digital learning.  

The PA was right to release these numbers early, with the full Yearbook to be published later in the year. I am only slightly over-egging the pudding to suggest that books had a renaissance in 2020 and as a sector—despite all the nuance we must bring to such statements—we cannot miss this opportunity to reinforce their central cultural and business importance. As one c.e.o. said to me this week, we have had almost 20 years of books being sidelined as new tech or entertainments came our way, yet it is these hardy perennials, these printed portals into other worlds, that survive and thrive. Sometimes perhaps too modestly.

This week the journalist Matthew Todd guest-edited our LGBTQ+ spotlight: in his introductory letter he asks: “What is [publishing] for if it cannot tell a diverse range of stories?” In his column Mohsin Zaidi, who came into the sector via Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme, and whose memoir A Dutiful Boy was published last year, writes of the “power in the platform” over which the publishing sector presides. “By giving voices to the underrepresented, you are changing lives in ways none of us will ever fully appreciate,” he concludes.

Publishing isn’t really about the numbers, though it is the business performance that provides the base on which such good motivations can flourish or flounder. In that respect, the pandemic and its consequences have presented us with a historic moment—we can shrink back and hope readers new and old continue to look to books, or we can build, build, build.