Home Bookselling Book sales have skyrocketed since the pandemic – but the industry must...

Book sales have skyrocketed since the pandemic – but the industry must adapt to engage with new readers


On one day of each October, the UK publishing industry focuses its attention on a large number of major new books. “Super Thursday,” as it’s called in the trade, is the start of a seasonal promotion in which writers compete for space inside bookstores and under Christmas trees.

Timing is important, as the book sales business is heavily dependent on the holiday season, with the last quarter of the year contributing substantially to annual sales. And while this year’s Super Thursday (October 14) will see fewer posts than in previous years, it still has nearly 300 new hardback books.

Major titles include a memoir by comedian Billy Connolly, a posthumous spy novel by John le Carré, and a children’s book by Julia Donaldson. And there are good reasons for these writers and their editors to be optimistic.

Although COVID-19 has presented challenges for the industry, recent industry figures indicate a marked increase in appetite for books and reading. Despite the closure of physical bookstores for much of 2020, over 200 million printed books were sold that year – the highest number since 2012. The overall sales value of UK publishers in 2020 was 6, £ 4 billion, 2% more than in 2019. Figures.

A change in reading habits during lockdowns and times of social restrictions may well have been responsible for this increase. Many people turned to books for entertainment, with some doubling the time they spent reading. Genres such as classical literature, crime and thrillers, self-help, cooking and hobbies have proven to be particularly appealing.

But are these reading rates and surging book sales lasting as the world opens up to other hobbies again? Certainly some of the signs are good, with a recent “National Bookstore Day” reportedly generating high footfall and record sales.

Yet at the same time, serious supply chain issues loom on the horizon, exacerbated by both Brexit and COVID-19. The industry is also still grappling with the enormous disruption caused by the entry of large tech companies into the market.

The most important of these is of course Amazon, which has quickly moved from selling and distributing printed books to a seamless connection between e-book software and Kindle hardware. It has since evolved to provide self-publishing platforms, while also analyzing reader behavior data using algorithms after acquiring the popular reading website Goodreads.

Page turner

The publishing industry suffers from the usual anxiety that people are no longer interested in buying and reading books; a feeling of existential crisis that the buoyant figures for 2020 and 2021 should at least partly dispel.

Yet threats from these ‘digital disruptors’, production and distribution issues, and concerns over post-Brexit copyright law, mean optimism can be scarce in the publishing industry. , despite recent successes.

To assess whether the future of UK publishing is bright, a more detailed analysis is needed. The publishers who performed particularly well in the confinement conditions were the biggest and oldest. Small independent businesses, against which the odds are already ripe, fought harder.

The industry is still counting on the last months of the year.
Unspalsh / Renee Fisher

But these new companies are crucial for the continued development of the industry. They are often more innovative in terms of the types of books they order, the authors they work with, and the audiences they serve.

The UK edition still has an overwhelming majority of white and middle class workforce, while being geographically centralized in the south of England.

And while tech companies can disrupt traditional publishing business practices, they can also provide platforms for communities and voices that industry control practices rarely let pass. Self-publishing platforms such as Wattpad offer successful alternative models, which can lead to global audiences and trade deals.

Wattpad’s own figures show that 90 million monthly users spend 20 billion minutes on the platform each month. But perhaps their most significant statistic is that 90% of the platform’s audience are readers under the age of 40.

This level of engagement with such platforms suggests that writing and reading is far from dead, even though the emerging business models that attract some readers present a challenge for the traditional publishing industry.

To fully understand whether book publishing is sustainable, we need to think beyond the economics of traditional businesses. Instead, we should take into account the sociological models of writing and reading, and the platforms that allow or inhibit them.

As the pandemic has shown, reading remains an activity highly valued by millions of people, especially in situations of increased stress and leisure, but also constrained. As the publishing industry emerges, it is undoubtedly sustainable – but the precise shape of its future is both uncertain and open to radical new forces.