A new equilibrium

The mass high street closures of the past 15 months have proved to have a major effect on what customers have bought and read, and that is becoming ever clearer in the statistics. In this week’s issue we explore the boom in the backlist that has seen it out-index the overall lift which the market has experienced over the pandemic period in 2020, and continuing across into spring 2021.

Partly, of course, the backlist surge is due to some giant titles, which have caught the zeitgeist, brought in all kinds of readers, and generated their own enduring momentum over considerable periods of time—step forward, Charlie Mackesy. But the exceptional circumstances of book retailover the Covid year have clearly also contributed: without the physical presence of dedicated bookshops, without staff, attuned to their customers, able to personally recommend the titles they are really passionate about and champion upcoming names, buying habits have turned demonstrably, and understandably, more conservative. Consumers have relied more on familiar brands and known quantities, and the names that are most easily found via online retail or in the supermarkets which stayed open throughout the coronavirus peak months.

Although the latest Publishers Association statistics have shown a very welcome rise in fiction sales in particular during the Covid year, as readers turned to the world of imagination for comfort and solace, publishers still tell us it’s been generally harder to break out a range of débuts beyond the very biggest or most acclaimed titles while physical bookshops have been closed. It’s also been harder, some say, to find exposure for an overlooked midlist—an important factor for the industry’s long-term health when, as our recent writer survey confirmed, author earnings have been so painfully squeezed from many different directions as a result of the pandemic.

Major publishers have been reaping the rewards of the rise in the popularity of reading over the lockdown year, with Bloomsbury this week the latest to announce a stellar sales and profit lift. That’s first and foremost a tribute to publishers’ adaptability and resourcefulness in coping successfully with the unprecedented and intense pressures of 2020, as well as to the sheer hard work of all their staff. But with the imposing of new lockdowns—we have to hope—now finally set to come to an end, and the industry as a whole struggling back towards a new equilibrium, publishers must look more than ever to help support the wider ecosystem of the trade so that bookshops can help new and midlist names start and develop new trends, or become themselves the big brands of the future.

That being so, it’s in everyone’s interest, particularly that of authors, that any disruptions to the relationship between publishers and retailers—as is currently at play between Waterstones and Penguin Random House, though the details remain unclear—are brought to a conclusion as speedily as possible.