Could the general election knock the book trade's Christmas spirit? This week we asked about the sector’s voting intentions, with this left-leaning business opting—just about—for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour over Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats. At the last election, the Lib Dems had the lead at the beginning of the campaign before Labour romped through, mirroring the swing in the country. The Tories, currently polling at around 40% of the national vote according to most pollsters, and probably on course to form the next government, are barely in sight in our poll (of course).
For booksellers, the first worry is how this will impact trading, not just in the run-up to the big day, but on the days after, particularly if, as bookseller Nic Bottomley cautions, no one wins. "If it’s an unclear or confusing result, the disruption won’t just be on the 12th and that leaves us with a very short window to overcome that before Christmas." There is some cause for concern. According to Nielsen BookScan, while October was strong against last year, November has been sluggish, particularly when set against last year’s early pace-setters, David Walliams’ The Ice Monster and Michelle Obama’s Becoming—both released in the first half of the month. Since Super Thursday, 26.4 million print books have sold through BookScan for £239m, up 0.7% in volume and 1.65% in value against the same period in 2018. The past three weeks have seen 11.8 million books sold for £105m, 2.9% down in volume and 1.2% down in value on the same period in 2018.
For some booksellers Walliams’ The Beast of Buckingham Palace can’t arrive soon enough. Yet the best Christmases for the trade en masse are when no one book dominates, but a range of titles succeed, giving indies just as much chance to profit from festive trading as those who rely on heavy discounting, such as Amazon, the chains and the supermarkets. This year we are well primed with the expertly titled Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, Mrs Hinch’s oeuvre, Elton John’s Me, Bill Bryson’s The Body and the unexpected hit The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy all jockeying for position at the top of the weekly bestseller lists. Quite the festive treat.
This being the last Christmas of the decade, we might also want to reflect on how much (or little) has changed over the period. High street bookshops must fight for every penny of consumer spend, as they always have, with the quality of the publishing absolutely vital, as it long has been. But the differentiation of print, digital and audio has become increasingly clear and, generally, helpful.
Ten years ago the trade stood at a crossroads, with digital rising and both Borders and Waterstones on the edge. The junction we are at now may not appear to be of our own making, but it is nevertheless ours to own. From smart non-fiction to sustainability, what the trade does next has increased in importance as readers look to us to reflect their world and explain it to them, and our leaders play down the importance of experts.
The election is just the beginning.