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Publishing after pandemic: How the coronavirus changed reading habits

Customers wearing face masks browse for books inside the re-opened Daunt Books independent bookshop in London, after the easing of lockdown - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The publishing industry has remained remarkably robust through the pandemic, but the coronavirus has exacerbated some alarming trends for the UK’s literary scene.

I only realised this the other day while I was actually doing it, but of all the things I’ve missed during the pandemic – popping out for a pint, going to the match, not putting a mask on straight after a cheese and onion roll – very near the top of the list is browsing in bookshops.

The last year or so has seen the death of the wilfully aimless wander. We’ve only really been out of the house to work, go food shopping or take our daily exercise. Since March last year everything outside the home has been done deliberately and for a specific purpose. Lockdown suffocated aimlessness; everything we did was for a reason.

When my local bookshop reopened last month and I went in for the first time I found a mixture of the familiar and the strange. It had been so long I almost didn’t know what to do. Having walked about three paces through the door I found myself slightly panicked, twisting first left, then right, arms swinging loosely at my sides, mouth hanging open, breathing so quickly my mask snapped back and forth like a dinghy sail in a cyclone.

All these books! Together in one place! In three dimensions! They were lined up, spines out, on shelves floor to ceiling. They were in neat piles on tables. They were face out on display racks above little white cards on which staff members praised them in sharpie.

Once my vision had stopped swimming, I was able to pull myself together enough to commence something I hadn’t done in a long time: wandering aimlessly to no great purpose. For the first time in a year or more I was passing the time rather than watching time passing.

I read the blurbs on the back of paperbacks and inside the jackets of hardbacks. I stood earnestly in front of the ‘new hardback fiction’ section for a bit. I tried to look intelligent in front of the poetry books. I avoided dallying near the section marked ‘smart thinking’ lest people think I had notions about myself.

Three-quarters of an hour later – well, it’s only a small shop – I walked out into the sunshine with a Muriel Spark and a Maigret. Then after a brief, noisy and embarrassing scuffle I went back inside and paid for them.

To call my first 45 minutes in a bookshop after such a long time exhilarating would be overstating things a bit, but it wasn’t far off. I had rediscovered the joy of the browse and it was marvellous, perusing rows of books in subjects I’d never thought about by authors I’d never heard of. I was suddenly aware just how much knowledge, imagination, joy, heartbreak, laughter and grief was contained in that relatively small room with no windows except the big one at the front with a door in it.

I wanted to see as much of it as possible. It had been so long since I’d heel-to-toed at glacial pace along a rack of shelves with my head parallel to the floor I even ended up giving myself mild neck strain.

The bookshops have reopened with the industry in a surprisingly healthy condition. The Publishers’ Association released its annual report last week that showed book buying not only remained resilient during the pandemic, we actually bought more books in 2020 than in the previous year.

Overall UK publishing saw its total income from the home market and exports rise by 2% to £6.4bn in 2020. Of that, audiobook sales rocketed by 37% to £133m (Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook platform, saw listening rise by 20% in 2020 to nearly 500m hours worldwide), sales of fiction were up 16% to £688m while non-fiction rose by 4% to around billion. Digital sales were up by a quarter on the previous year to £418m; total print sales were £1.7bn.

It’s great news for an industry that was this time last year hoping to, at best, circle its wagons and minimise economic damage. Yet while the figures are being rightly celebrated some areas of concern do remain.

The buoyancy of the book trade during 2020 was built largely on high profile new titles. Barack Obama’s A Promised Land and Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club dominated the charts, with Osman’s thriller passing a million sales last month despite only being published in hardback in September. Award winners like Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (Women’s Prize for Fiction) and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which scooped the Booker Prize, also sold in great numbers.

Newsworthy books and famous authors will always dominate the sales charts, but during the pandemic the gap between the headliners and the also-rans grew bigger than ever.

With almost all sales coming through online retailers, the contribution of browsing was almost non-existent. How many of us made an impulsive, random book purchase online last year? Not me. The books I bought were volumes I’d gone looking for specifically or that came up in automatically-generated recommendations. No matter how advanced the algorithm it’s always going to be artificial. You can scroll online, but you can’t browse.

This is a problem for authors on what’s called the midlist, the books that are not necessarily going to set the world on fire but which sell well enough to satisfy an author’s audience and maybe even justify their writing more books. It’s also an issue for authors’ backlists, books written and published a year or more ago whose only visible presence is in a bookshop. These books represent the majority of the stock on bookshop shelves by some distance so 2020 wasn’t, in the main, a good year for them.

People are generally surprised to learn that the writer of a book earns the smallest share of its cover price. Once the retailer, distributor and publisher have divided up their slices there’s usually somewhere around 10% of the cover price left for the author. For midlist authors a significant proportion of those 10% comes via in-store browsing with the occasional boost from an endorsement on a ‘staff picks’ shelf. Deprived of these sales for most of the last year, the majority of authors have taken a heavy financial hit – my own most recent royalty payment in the autumn was down by more than half on the previous year.

The cancellation of launches, readings and book festivals also had an adverse effect on authors. It’s only recently that most literary festivals have come round to the idea that writers should receive a fee to appear, but without the attendant book sales and signings everyone loses out: the author, the event, the publisher and the reader given a rare chance to meet a writer whose work they admire.

Many events and launches went online successfully – a book launch that might attract 60 people to a bookshop could pull in viewer numbers in the high hundreds – but while publishers and bookshops did their best to make purchasing online as easy as possible as part of the event, those sales still pale in comparison to being on the spot with the opportunity to have your copy signed.

It was tricky enough making a living as an author before the pandemic, but lockdowns have only made that task even harder. The writers’ representative body the Society of Authors announced at the end of April that it has paid out more than £1.4 million in hardship grants to authors since last March.

What might this mean for the future of books? For authorship, the risk is that the only people who can afford the time it takes to write a book are the already wealthy or those at least in a position of privilege that buys them the months they need.

This has long been a significant issue but it’s one the pandemic isn’t exactly helping to solve. Black Lives Matter helped to emphasise the lack of diversity in almost every area of society, including publishing, but if authors outside the bestseller charts are seeing their incomes fall from not exactly great heights as a result of lockdown then the prospects for work appearing from a culturally and socio-economically diverse range of authors also diminishes. If books become the exclusive preserve of writers who don’t necessarily need the money, it doesn’t bode well for the future of literature.

All of which serves to illustrate just how important it is that bookshops are open again. The death of them has been long predicted, and there have been tricky times especially for independent shops, but so far they’ve resisted the challenges of the online behemoths and the e-book. With browsers back in stores it’s vital that shops seize on the importance of their role and keep innovating, keep finding ways of bringing people into their premises.

The publishing industry is often glacially slow first to notice the need for change and then to implement it. It’s not just down to indolence or complacency: the writing, producing and selling of books can be a long process, so tangible change can take a while to manifest itself. Yet some people on the ground are already noticing shifts in book buying habits even since the shops reopened last month.

“People are walking past Ant and Dec,” Martin Latham, manager of the Canterbury branch of Waterstones since 1990 and author of the memoir The Bookseller’s Tale, told me. “Bookshops are still piling up the celebrity memoirs but I’ve certainly noticed people, especially younger people, going past them towards self-improvement, philosophy, that kind of thing. They’re also seeking out the big beasts they’ve never got around to, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, that kind of thing.”

Latham is keen to see shops avoid complacency and capitalise on the return of footfall. Sighing with relief and sitting behind the till twiddling thumbs won’t be enough.

“Bookshops have to start livening up, being more fun,” he said. “Events, talks, cafes, they’re really going to have to get their acts together and become more accessible and more individual. The arts of recommendation and curation are going to be even more important going forward from this pandemic.”

There has probably never been a better time to be a reader. With shops open again and a glut of new titles appearing – those that were scheduled for publication now and those whose publication was postponed during the pandemic – we are spoiled for choice.

Let’s not forget that there are other books and other authors still there on the shelves, though. Wander the shelves. Check out the staff recommendations. Pull a book out because you like the colour of the spine, or the typeface of the title. Take a chance. I wouldn’t have picked up that Muriel Spark and that Maigret if I’d just been sitting at home scrolling online, for example, and it’s important to remember the wealth of riches awaiting us beyond the teetering piles on creaking tables as you walk through the door.

Have a browse. Have a long, indulgent browse. The word has roots in the Old French verb broster, meaning to sprout or bud, and there will be a book lurking there on a shelf somewhere that leads to a new personal literary flowering, an author you’ll gush about to friends whose books you’ll give as gifts for years to come, but of whom you’d never heard when you walked into the shop.

Online shopping has many merits, it’s kept the publishing industry afloat for the last year, but you can’t, after all, write code for serendipity.



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