A world without bookshops

Could the coronavirus crisis and the UK lockdown be offering the publishing industry a glimpse into a world without bookshops? Nielsen BookScan has so far spent five weeks unable to release volume or value figures or market data, due to the lockdown closing bricks-and-mortar shops. However, the positional bestseller rankings, in a market now dominated by Amazon and supermarket sales, show it’s almost business-as-normal for established brands. But that word-of-mouth effect on sales that bookshops can give quirkier bestsellers—the magic that turns an unknown debut into an Eleanor Oliphant or a comedian’s old diaries into a This is Going to Hurt—is glaringly absent. For the trade, this time—the Ghost of Book Market Future—should act as a warning.

Two new releases have hit the UK Official Top 50 number over the Dark Time—Mrs Hinch’s The Little Book of Lists (Michael Joseph) and David Walliams’ Slime (HarperCollins). Both titles were announced to great fanfare long before the UK locked down—The Little Book of Lists in January and Slime in early March—and would have garnered mile-high pre-orders to help them to the summit despite the high street shutdown. 

Walliams’ titles have long over-indexed for supermarket sales—we can see from the twice-annual independent bookshop charts, featured in The Bookseller’s Buyer’s Guides, how much less dominant he is amongst indies—and the likes of Mrs Hinch and the Pinch of Nom authors will no doubt benefit from easily-placed Amazon links and pre-orders through their globe-spanning social media accounts.  On the other hand, the Waterstones Books of the Month, usually dominant in their respective category charts, are nowhere to be seen. 

Outside of Mantel mania, and the inevitable boost for Sally Rooney’s Normal People (Faber) as its BBC adaptation becomes one of the few new dramas on TV, literary fiction in particular may suffer this year. Though fiction accounted for 29 books in the Top 50, the Mass Market Fiction top 20 was almost exclusively crime or gentle comfort reads. Debuts and new hardback fiction are particularly struggling to break through, with last week's Original Fiction top 20 featuring 11 titles published at least four weeks ago.

The one exception to the rule may be Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse (Ebury), which, of course, soared in sales following its Waterstones Book of the Year win and, back in those halcyon days when we could physically walk into actual shops, could be found in five-deep piles next to the retailer’s tills across the land. Last week saw The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse canter back into the Hardback Non-Fiction number one, leapfrogging Mrs Hinch’s The Little Book of Lists

But, of course, Mackesy’s illustrated thoroughbred may be surviving in sales for another reason—it perfectly embodies the lockdown-boosted trend of the soothing read. Even before the coronavirus hit, it was demonstrating its ability to provide a mental crutch for book buyers to lean on—it soared into the top spot the week of Caroline Flack’s suicide in February.

In normal times, the Children’s charts are often dominated by big brands and heritage titles, making it harder for plucky young debuts to break through—hence the importance of the Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month, which never failed to place the spotlight and a Children’s chart spot on less-established authors. With the buyers of children’s books often at least a degree removed from the readers themselves, kids’ publishing is often overwhelmed by nostalgia reading. Many of the staples of the weekly Picture Book were published before Nielsen BookScan even existed. There’s also the lack of newspaper coverage children’s books receive compared to adult titles, hampering that word-of-mouth buzz that so many adult fiction debuts use as a springboard to stellar sales.

The lockdown has done nothing but exacerbate the situation, with last week’s Children’s and YA Fiction top 20 returning nine Walliams titles. The self-isolating public has also fallen back on old favourites, particularly the ultimate Millennial comfort read. Five of the seven Harry Potter books were in the chart and the £62.99 Harry Potter Box Set (Bloomsbury) hit 19th. The Pre-School chart tells a similar story, with Julia Donaldson picture books accounting for half of the top 20.

Covid-19 has, strangely, brought into reality the nightmare scenario envisioned by many in the book trade at the end of the noughties. Industry figures predicted Amazon and supermarkets would dominate, independent bookshops would disappear altogether and the e-book would take over. But it didn’t happen—over the past decade, print and e-book found a balance, indie bookshops increased and Waterstones got back in the black. The current crisis has given us a glance into an alternative universe—let’s hope it remains temporary, and the trade never takes for granted the unique way booksellers shape this business.