Booksellers hope soaring sales will continue as we read more

By Jonty Bloom
Business reporter

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Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, The lockdowns gave many of us more time to read books

Not exactly one hundred years of solitude, to use the title of a well-known novel, but the long coronavirus lockdowns gave many of us a lot more time to read.

As a result, sales of physical books rose strongly: some 202 million paperbacks and hardbacks were sold in the UK in 2020, according to industry figures.

That was the first time these sales had passed the 200 million mark since 2012.

It was a similar picture in the US, where sales hit 751 million last year, the highest figure since 2009.

With the UK's Bookshop Day being held on Saturday, 9 October, to encourage readers to shop in their local bookshop, the industry hopes this trend will continue now that people have got into the habit of reading more.

Alison Holmes, who helps run a book club in York, believes that the lockdown, and the extra downtime it offered people, was liberating for some avid readers.

"I know people... who have been able to sit down and read without feeling guilty about all the other things they should be doing," she says.

Ms Holmes' book club has a fun and healthy twist. The York Bike Belles' Walking Book Club meet once a month to walk the streets of the city, talking about a certain novel.

Image source, Olivia Brabbs
Image caption, Alison Holmes, front left, and her fellow book club members talk about novels while walking round the streets of York

During the lockdowns the club went online, but they are now outside strolling again, every four weeks.

While physical book shops had to close their doors during the lockdowns, many found a way round that problem.

Barbara White is the buyer and children's book manager at Wimbledon Books, an independent store in south west London. "Obviously we had to close, but we did click-and-collect, which, in the run-up to last Christmas, was manically busy," she says.

"People were rediscovering books and wanting to be supportive."

After the 2020 Christmas period, sales did begin to falter, but Ms White says a knight in shining armour arrived - a website called Bookshop.org.

Image source, Barbara White
Image caption, Barbara White's bookshop in south west London set up a click and collect scheme

An online retailer of new books that first started in the US in January 2020, it shares its profits with independent physical bookstores.

Customers order from Bookshop.org, and the books are sent out from a wholesaler. Independent shops registered with Bookshop.org are not involved in this process - they do not store, or post, the books in question - however they still get to share 10% of the website's revenues (approximately a third of its profits) every six months.

In addition, independent stores get all the profits from the sale of books on Bookshop.org from orders that originate via links from their own websites, social media posts, or email newsletters.

"Our mission is to help independent book shops get a bigger share of online sales," says Nicole Vanderbilt, managing director of Bookshop.org's UK arm.

"We have over 500 UK bookshops signed-up, and our proudest achievement is on the front of our website, where it shows how much money we have given to those bookshops."

Image source, Bookshop.org
Image caption, Bookshop.org aims to rival Amazon when it comes to book sales

This running total now stands at more than £1.6m in the UK, and $16m (£12m) in the US. Bookshop.org is a so-called "Certified B-Corporation" business - one that has pledged to balance making a profit with social and environmental best practice.

While Covid-19 lockdowns are now, fingers crossed, coming to an end, Ms Vanderbilt says sales of physical books are continuing to rise. "We do see this continuing, lots of publishers are saying this has been their best year for ages," she says.

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One author who is focused on independent shops is Robin Ince, who is also a comedian, actor, and co-presenter of BBC podcast The Infinite Monkey Cage.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Author, comedian, actor and presenter Robin Ince is a big fan of independent book shops

He has just published his latest book, The Importance Of Being Interested, and is now on a tour of more than 100 such UK bookshops to publicise the non-fiction title.

He says that while many of the shops thought Covid would be the nail in their coffins, the pandemic has instead allowed them to show their true worth.

"The independent bookshops have kept going, and their relationship with their customers has improved," he says. "Some got on their bikes and delivered their books to people's front doors."

In fact, the number of physical independent bookshops in the UK actually rose to 967 last year, according to trade body the Booksellers Association. An increase of 50 over 2019, it took the total to the highest level since 2013.

In the US the trend has been for the independents to increasingly focus on their online commerce, which last year rose to an average 30% of a shop's total sales, up from 4% in 2019, according to the American Booksellers Association.

In-person sales are now said to be returning to normal in the US bookshops. At Argosy in Manhattan, New York, partner Ben Lowry says "the store is crowded, we're wildly busy and we have just hired two new people".

Image source, Argosy
Image caption, Argosy, a book shop in Manhattan says customers have returned to its store

Of course, the elephant in the room is Amazon: the world's biggest seller of both physical and digital books, the latter via its Kindle e-reader. Its dominance in the market comes in for criticism, but it is also worth remembering that it does allow third-party sellers to use its website, both for new and old print books.

Mr Ince hopes that independent physical bookstores are here to stay despite the ease of buying online via Amazon, Bookshop.org, or elsewhere.

"Because I am normally touring the whole time, I always find myself in the independent bookshops, and I think there was a time when online nearly killed all this," he says. "But people who buy books all year round, rather than just for Christmas, just love bookshops - they find books on a table that they would never have found online."

Barbara White at Wimbledon Books, for one, is hopeful that higher sales are going to continue.

"We did have significant increase in books that were being ordered during lockdown, and we haven't found it falling-off since, we have an awful lot of people that read a lot," she says.