Reality rites

This time last year, as we headed into 2020, I wondered why the trade was so hesitant about championing itself: after a largely successful decade that saw it weather the digital and online revolution, the next few years promised much from a multi-format, omni-retail environment that centred on reading. Looking at how the pandemic year turned out, my conviction is, if anything, stronger. There are many lessons a global epidemic can offer, but for us the main one is also the obvious one: if you make good books, and make them discoverable, chances are you’ll find a reader, more if you are lucky. The past year—horrible though it has been—revealed a business that can continue to do that, even in extremis. That’s worth a cheer, even now.

I don’t mean to diminish the current state we are in, or underplay the hard work put into 2020—high street retail is hanging on now; these latest lockdowns need to be decisive and effective, and the government needs to get its vaccine strategy absolutely right. But for most bookshops Christmas did the business it needed to, with early trading, allied to clicking and collecting, bringing the market to a simmer, if not to the boil. Nielsen BookScan figures show that the non-lockdown weeks were up 8.8% in volume and 8.5% in value compared to the same weeks in 2019, with double-digit print book growth before the restrictions were re-imposed.

In that respect, this week’s industry predictions (see pp06–09) speak to a renewed optimism, based not just on surviving in normal times but also in the worst of them. The consensus appears to be that some shifts—flexible working, online events—are here to stay, but others—Zoom meetings—will mercifully fade away. For Meryl Halls, m.d. of the Booksellers Association, the pandemic has reinforced a commitment to shopping locally, while at the same time remaking booksellers into hybrid retailers. Meanwhile, publishers have had to become bifurcated operations with one eye on what works in a world moved online, and what does not: the specifics of supplying to retailers with widely different needs set against the generalities of online promotions. 

Some changes, including around diversity and inclusivity, were necessary before 2020 and will outlast the pandemic’s shadow. We will never again find it acceptable to not publish for all communities. We have also learned—or perhaps relearned—that publishing has an ethical dimension, with all the complications and difficulties that follow from that.

It may be that we look back on this period both as a year to regret but also one that we will need to remember. It is not just that we came through during this testing time, but that we improved because of it. There is precedent. In Rutger Bregman’s Human Kind (Bloomsbury) the historian posits the view that rather than descending into chaos during a crisis, humans rise to the occasion and become better people. Of course, it’s just a theory, but it’s a good one, and it seems to apply particularly to the book business, and to 2020.