Bookselling in lockdown: education titles surge as UK shops are shuttered

Bookselling in lockdown: education titles surge as UK shops are shuttered

What a month that was. March kicked off with the long-awaited release of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and ended, what felt like three years later, with the UK under lockdown, bookshops and wholesalers closed, and the state of the print market uncertain, with Nielsen BookScan unable to report full print market data last week.

Yet at the same time, books are surely more important now than ever before. The week ahead of Boris Johnson’s historic announcement that the UK was going into lockdown, ending 22nd March, fiction sales rose 32%
in volume year on year and children’s soared 11.5%, boosted by home-schooling educational workbooks. Though we have no market data to see if this boom lasted into the lockdown period, bestseller charts from Blackwell’s and Waterstones—from their online sales in the week ending 28th March—show books continue to provide the backbone of the nation’s new normal.

Blackwell’s top 10 features eight primary school-level study guides, with Writing Ages 3–5 Workbook in the top spot, beating 2019 Booker-winner Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other to the number one. First Phonics Ages 3–5, Handwriting Age 5–7 and Comprehension Ages 7–9 also thundered into the top five, no doubt snapped up by home-schooling parents.

Paperback fiction also stood firm. Despite topping the Nielsen BookScan rankings last week, The Mirror and the Light missed out on both Blackwell’s and Waterstones’ online number ones. For Blackwell’s, Girl, Woman, Other was the fiction bestseller, though pandemic-appropriate fiction also filled the chart. Albert Camus’ The Plague hit eighth place and Daniel Defore’s A Journal of the Plague Year fell just outside the chart.

Waterstones’ chart saw Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, the retailer’s Book of the Year for 2019, canter into the top spot. Mackesy’s illustrated title bounded upwards in sales following the nod last December, and maintained its bestseller status post-Christmas, finally topping the overall Nielsen BookScan charts in early February. (It gave also David Walliams and Tony Ross’ The Beast of Buckingham Palace a run for its money for the Christmas number one spot last year.) With more than 600,000 copies sold through the TCM as of 22nd March, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse has cornered anxiety publishing, recently embodied by Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and the rise in books on climate change. With the world more frightening and uncertain than ever before, Mackesy’s title offered soothing respite, and not for the first time—its sales also rose in the week the news of television presenter Caroline Flack’s suicide broke.

Chain reaction
Waterstones also saw its March Books of the Month perform strongly, with Thriller of the Month, Adrian McKinty’s The Chain in seventh and Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory, the Fiction Book of the Month, just outside the chart. Like Blackwell’s, The Mirror and the Light and Girl, Woman, Other also charted.

The retailer also saw a strong wave of educational workbooks, with English Ages 5–7 beating Writing Workbook Ages 3–5 to the top. Additionally, Johanna Basford’s adult colouring book charted just outside both Waterstones’ and Blackwell’s top 10s, and returned to the Nielsen BookScan Paperback Non-Fiction top 20—perhaps heralding the return of the adult colouring book trend during these indoor-focused times.

Digital boosts
Publishers reported a rise in e-book sales last week, as physical bookshops were forced to close and Amazon focused on deliveries of essential items. Sales of audio downloads were reportedly also rising, even outside the expected Mantel boost. For the week ending 28th March, the overall e-book chart through Bookstat was topped by Nicola May’s self-published The Corner Shop in Cockleberry Bay, followed by J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, literary comfort blankets in these troubling times. Bookstat’s Mystery & Thrillers top 10 saw continued strong sales in “e” for Dean Koontz’s pandemic thriller The Eyes of Darkness, in third place, below James Patterson’s Out of Sight and Claire McGowan’s chart stalwart What You Did. Paul J Teague’s collected psychological thrillers hit 10th place—at 2,801 pages, buyers were planning to settle in for the long haul.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone also claimed the Bookstat audio chart’s top spot for the week, though anyone who has so much as glanced at the Amazon charts will know this isn’t out of the ordinary. The soothing tones of Stephen Fry seemed to get the UK’s audio download consumer through the last week, with the first Harry Potter, Mythos and Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection all featuring in the Audible top 10.