In his 1946 essay, “The prevention of literature”, George Orwell named “the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books” as one of the threats to literature. I commented in my post that I didn’t know how that stood now in England, but that I thought Australians were currently buying books. The week’s Monday Musings seemed a good opportunity to check this out.
It didn’t take long to confirm. Jason Steger, literary editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, reported on 4 June, in his weekly emailed newsletter, that:
total book sales in Australia, according to Nielsen BookScan, jumped by 9 per cent to 66 million in 2020 … It’s proof that even as we sink more and more time into streaming services and social media, we’re still finding entertainment and enlightenment in books, and increasingly so during times of crisis and change.
This confirms what the Australian and New Zealand book industry’s Books+Publishing reported last (southern) spring (30 September):
For the first eight months of 2020, adult fiction sales were up 12% in value compared to the same period in 2019, and children’s, YA and educational sales were up 7%, according to data from Nielsen BookScan. Only adult trade nonfiction was lagging slightly, with sales down 1%.
This includes some catch-up, because, apparently, sales were down 3% in 2019 after 5 years of “marginal growth”.
Unfortunately, the figures do not include “ebooks and audiobooks, as their sales aren’t tracked in Australia in any reliable way”. We don’t know, therefore, whether, with lockdowns, more people turned to eBooks, making the increase even better than they look.
On the other hand …
While this looks positive, it’s not evenly so. Books+Publishing notes that bookshops in major city centres and some shopping centres struggled – particularly in Melbourne with its long lockdown – while sales in suburban strip shopping centres and regional towns were up on last year. The major winners were the online retailers and discount department stores. I don’t know whether these “online retailers” include the bricks-and-mortar shops which introduced online options.
Books+Publishing also looked at the impact on publishing. They reported that major publishers “appear to have weathered the fallout from Covid-19 better than many of the smaller publishers, particularly those with titles doing well in discount department stores, chains and online retailers”. Many smaller publishers reported significant declines in sales. An exception was Melbourne’s Affirm Press which chose not to delay publishing any of its titles. It had excellent results with Pip Williams’ debut novel The dictionary of lost words which went into reprint in its first week.
Steger takes up the impact on writers, particularly debut authors who had “book launches, festival appearances and publicity tours cancelled”. He links to Melanie Kembrey’s article on how “six authors got their books published – in the hardest of times”. The article, actually, focuses more generally on these debut authors than on the impact of COVID-19, but a couple of authors do talk about it. Sam Coley, author of State Highway One, had a sense of humour about it saying:
Since you’re not going to make any money out of it, that’s the real fun part of it, drinking wine on our publisher’s expense account … It was disappointing. It was difficult to launch a book online and then still be inside your own house.
He also had a publicity tour of New Zealand cancelled (thus missing more excellent wine-drinking opportunities, I’d say!)
Vivian Pham, author of the well-regarded The coconut children, was “relieved” that the coronavirus meant cancellation of public events. It was a silver lining, for her, as it gave her time to process what was happening. She didn’t feel “ready”, having had no “public speaking” experience. She said she’d “mainly been doing online events and book clubs which feel really personal.” She liked that the pandemic “slowed things down” because it had been “overwhelming.”
Many of you will have seen/attended online events, like those mentioned by Pham. One lovely one that I attended was Writers in Residence, which focused on emerging writers. Blogger Lisa (ANZLitLovers) offered to host Virtual Launches and had three authors take this up.
You may have noticed in the figures above that most areas increased, except for adult nonfiction which showed a small decrease. Steger reported in January on 2020’s bestselling books. He starts by noting a trend already under way, “the continuing absence of one of the staples of many annual bestseller lists, international and American fiction, particularly crime”. How interesting.
A decade ago, the top 10 books sold in Australia included only one Australian book (a cookbook), says Steger. However, in 2020, only two US books were on the list (one being Delia Owens’ Where the crawdads sing). Mark Newman, managing director of the 57-shop Dymocks chain, said there’s been a growing trend towards Australian stories. This started in 2016 with Jane Harper’s The dry. Novels which appeared in 2020’s top 10 included Trent Dalton’s All the shimmering skies and Jane Harper’s The survivors. Newman said that 2020 had been “particularly strong for Australian authors with new books.
Books+Publishing categorised what people were reading, and came up with “escapist fiction, self-help and children’s books (middle grade)”. According to Allen & Unwin, crime by both Australian and international authors, was selling well, particularly from “well-loved local and international authors … as people are looking for something they know they will enjoy”. This was not me. Although for reasons many of you know I read less, my reading preferences didn’t change.
Anyhow, Books+Publishing writes,
In the absence of browsing opportunities, established brands, titles and authors were the clear winners. ‘Debut literary fiction has been more challenging,’ says Sherwin-Stark [Hachette Australia]. ‘In normal times, our debut authors would be out and about meeting booksellers and readers on publication, and this has just not been possible.’
The impact of the lack of “browsing” is something I hadn’t considered. You can browse books online, but, do you? Do you?
Sherwin-Stark also says something that I’m sure many of us observed:
“the pandemic has encouraged the industry to get more creative in their promotion. ‘Publishers and bookshops have been incredibly innovative to find ways to connect readers with authors—virtual events are excellent and attracting very large viewing audiences and these events will become a part of our promotional mix permanently.’
So there it is … a little round-up on the pandemic’s impact on the bookselling and publishing.
I’d love to hear about your experience of pandemic reading?