A rising tide of returning book-buyers lifts all boats

After 12 long weeks, bookshops re-opened in England last week—and the book-buying public unquestionably chose bookshops. The UK lockdown from 23rd March closed bricks-and-mortar shops across the country, with supermarkets the only physical outlets to buy a book and Amazon dominating online sales. Though Nielsen BookScan were unable to provide figures during lockdown, the chart rankings showed the knock-on effect of no word-of-mouth and no browsing: wall-to-wall brand authors and social media behemoths.

But bookshops returned with a bang. The first week of high street bookshop trading saw 3.85 million books sold for £33.04m—a rise of 30.9% across both volume and value compared to the same week in 2019. Every category rocketed by double-digit figures year on year in both measures, with Adult Fiction up nearly 20% in value, Trade Non-Fiction up 35% and Children’s up 40% (and in volume, 44%). No week in 2019 spiked as high until the week ending 9th November, when the Christmas-gift buying period was already in full swing. And remember, this was just England—Scottish and Welsh bookshops are still yet to re-open.

In fact, no week 25 since 2012 has peaked higher than 3.8 million books, and no week 25 since 2003 had surpassed £33.04m. To put that into context, that week in June 2012 saw E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (Arrow) shift a whisker under 400,000 copies, pushing the market’s total volume to over four million books. In 2003, the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Bloomsbury) in both children’s and adult’s editions (remember them?) raked in £17.5m between them to bump the total value to over £40m. But week 25 2020 had no six-figure bestsellers to skew the total upwards—a rising tide of returning bookbuyers lifted all boats. The strength in the market went all the way down.

Over the last few weeks, anti-racism reading lists circulating on social media have boosted black authors and books about systemic racism up the charts—and the return of bookshops only helped, with an even wider range of titles charting. Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury) charted top of the UK Official BookScan Top 50 for a second week, with 34,215 copies sold—a single-week volume no other Paperback Non-Fiction title has reached in over a year. Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other (Penguin) jumped back into the Mass Market Fiction number one, with 18,893 copies sold—higher than any other number one in the chart this year, pre-lockdown. Akala’s Natives (Two Roads) and Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy (Quercus) continued to chart high as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (Penguin), David Olusoga’s Black and British (Pan), Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) (Vintage) and Ijeoma Olu’s So You Want to Talk About Race (Basic) all charted in the Top 50 for the first time.

This strange glimpse into another timeline that the coronavirus crisis has offered us—one where the trade's worries of the late 2000s came to bear over the last decade, and supermarkets and Amazon swallowed the market whole—should serve as a reminder that the book trade is shaped uniquely by booksellers. The brand author-heavy charts of the last few months, the dearth of quirky indie hits and plucky debuts, must act as the Ghost of Book Trade Future—a warning not to be ignored.