An Electric Eclectic insight of the Pandemic’s effects on book sales.

Despite shops being closed for much of 2020, figures show Britons bought books in volume – although many authors continued to struggle.

UK

More than 200m print books were sold in the UK last year, the first time since 2012 that number has been exceeded, according to an estimate from official book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan.

Although physical ‘bricks & mortar’ bookshops in England were closed from 23 March until 15 June, and then again from 5 November until 2 December, with differing lockdowns in place around the rest of the UK – Nielsen has estimated that the volume of print books sold grew by 5.2% compared with 2019. This equates to 202m books being sold in the UK last year and was worth £1.76bn, up 5.5% on 2019, said Nielsen.

The Bookseller magazine (https://www.thebookseller.com/news/bookscan-estimates-2020-full-year-print-market-55-value-1234212 ) said the figure represented the biggest volume rise in the books market since 2007 and the highest annual value since 2009.

Waterstones, Kate Skipper called the figures encouraging. “So many people have turned to books for sustenance, information and joy through this difficult year.”

USA

Physical retail and online retail have taken dramatically different paths during the pandemic. Well-established chains like Brooks Brothers, GNC, J. Crew, and Neiman Marcus have all made Chapter 11 filings, while Amazon, eBay, Walmart, and Target reported record sales.

While book publishing, generally, has performed strongly thus far during the pandemic, bookstores have not.

Despite much positive news around publisher net sales, the U.S. Census data show that bookstore sales declined 28.8% in October 2020 vs. 2019 and 31% YTD.

Through the summer of 2020, Barnes & Noble, like most independent booksellers, balanced opening restrictions against offering online order pickup and greatly expanded online sales. By late fall, cafe and magazine newsstand sales were still down significantly, but book sales were running ahead of a year ago, aided by a doubling in online sales.

COVID-19′s impact on publishing sales and the supply chain has been less than many feared it would be. Whatever doom and gloom surround the publishing industry during the COVID crisis, sales cannot be singled out for scorn. Trade sales in 2020 were almost uniformly ahead of 2019, and in several categories, unit sales were up over 20% through mid-December.

EBOOKS

The ebook format has been to some extent reborn during the pandemic, recovering from shrinking percentages of overall sales, and publisher disdain for the format.

AUDIOBOOKS

After years of spectacular sales growth, audiobook sales growth slowed significantly in 2019: 16.4% versus 34.7% in 2018, based on data from the Audio Publishers Association (APA). NPD Group reported that unit digital audiobook sales were up 15% through May 2020. The AAP calculated that downloaded audio sales were up 17.3% to the end of October.

In the library market, Overdrive, which had been seeing year-over-year growth in audiobooks, saw depressed audiobook adoption in the pandemic. A possible reason cited by the company: commuters who had been listening to books in the car (or on mass transit) were no longer going into the office.

ELECTRIC ECLECTIC asks…

Overall, the numbers are positive for audio; only the pace of growth is slowing.

Podcast consumption offers an interesting perspective on this data.

Spotify reported in July that in its second-quarter 21% of users were listening to podcasts, up from 19% in Q1. Overall consumption of podcasts more than doubled.

Podtrac recorded 47% download growth for the 52 weeks ending November 01, 2020.

Are these listeners being lured away from audiobooks? Or are podcasts just part of an overall burgeoning audio trend?

PUBLISHING

The pandemic has had an enormous impact on how publishing companies are staffed and how staff execute their work. And, by all accounts, that impact may mark a permanent shift in publishing workflows.

In early August, Penguin Random House confirmed it will not return to its offices “until sometime in 2021… or until it’s safe and it’s practical, whenever that may be.”

Also in August, Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch sent out a note that “we will not be requiring anyone whose work can be done remotely to return to any of our offices for the foreseeable future.”

GENERAL

Overall retail sales changed only slightly in 2020, but there were huge swings month-to-month. April sales were down 14.7% from March but were followed by an 18.3% jump in May. November retail sales dropped 1.1% from October but were up 4.1% from November 2019.

Book retail is a set of businesses. First, it’s both physical and digital. More than half of all book retail takes place online (with Amazon accounting for at least half of those sales). Physical retail, on its own, has several components, broadly speaking: chain bookstores, independent bookstores, big-box retailers like Costco, and “newsstands” at drug and grocery stores, airport stores, etc.

Then there is digital, capturing more than 10% of most book publisher sales, and the vast majority of self-publishing sales. Amazon controls at least three-quarters of that market.

TO CONCLUDE

The changes in the retail landscape speak volumes. (Pun intended).

On the one hand, from now on publishers must treat bookselling as online- and digital-first, physical-second, with no further questions asked.

Pre-COVID it was still valid for publishers to ponder “where does Amazon fit within our reseller channel strategy?”

The question henceforth is “how do our reselling channels align with an online-first strategy (particularly for Amazon)?”

And the mouse in the corner might be heard to squeak “and what should we do about the bookstores?”

Although the sudden pandemic-driven shifts may slow or revert toward the mean with the achievement of a “new normal,” we believe that important underlying changes will persist and continue to evolve.

Keep Happy, Paul

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