New year cheer

Last week the Booksellers Association (BA) reported that the number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland had grown for the fifth consecutive year, with the BA’s figures showing 1,027 shops as active members at the end of 2021, the highest number since 2013.

Since this is January, we can pull in a bit more good news. This week Nielsen BookScan revealed that full-year sales through its UK panel are likely to have broken £1.8bn for the first time, with 10-year highs for fiction and non-fiction, and another record period for the children’s sector. In Ireland, sales also reached a new record high, with value up by 3% over 2020.

Meanwhile, this magazine’s survey of Christmas sales among indie bookshops (see pp06–07) reports that almost 60% of participants said trade was “very good” compared to 2020, with some retailers up by as much as 50%. A wider BA survey has 58% of its 228 respondents up on 2020, with an average increase of 21%.

There was some shift of buying habits, with more customer visits this year than last year, and customers tending to shop often rather than in bulk, at least until Omicron emerged. The BA reports that 47% of its contingent saw footfall rise a little or a lot, albeit with town centres more subdued. Repeat customers did the business for many, with wider support among the community seen as a vital ingredient. Natasha Radford, co-owner of Chicken & Frog in Brentwood, Essex, told us: “We have found that community engagement is the key. It doesn’t need to be anything grand, but people appreciate it.”

Regional differences are important this year, too, with both Scottish and Irish booksellers telling this magazine that nervousness around the rise of Omicron in those final weeks of December deterred some customers, as their governments adopted more stringent measures more quickly. There was, however, broad acceptance for wearing masks and social distancing when required.

Despite the worries going into the period over supply chain disruption and popular books running out of stock, this did not ruin things, with publishers “praised” for having kept titles in stock despite the longer turnaround times for reprints and some paper shortages.

Authors too had a decent year—according to our partial Nielsen data (see pp08–11)—especially those with backlists such as Julia Donaldson and J K Rowling, who had 851 and 515 different editions respectively of their books selling last year. Overall, around 130 authors sold more than £1m through the Nielsen universe, ahead of the shortened 2020, and about par with earlier years.

There is some some shade. Among the things authors and booksellers share is that neither party, unless they are lucky, can live off the income of just one activity alone. Indies do much as well as sell books; authors do much beyond write books. In that respect, the data tells half a story, albeit an up-lit one. In short, we are doing well, but we are working hard for it.