Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading and publishing, pandemic-wise

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.

Book cover

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.

What sold?

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.

Bruce Pasco, Dark emu

Other Australian books which appeared in the top 20 included Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu which was first published in 2014.

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?

51 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading and publishing, pandemic-wise

  1. Sue, I seemed to waiver between reading books that took me away from what we were experiencing during the pandemic–books which included Where the Crawdads Sing and The Dictionary of Lost Words–and books that resonated with the times, such as The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay and Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. You?

    • I just kept reading the books that were put in front of me, mostly, Angela! I have such a backlog of review copies that I really had few choices to make! Which is both good and bad. I did earlier this year decide I was going to read what I wanted to read, but they were TBR books, rather than choosing new books. I still haven’t found the right mix for choosing/balancing my reading, but I can say that the pandemic barely affected my choices.

  2. Lots of thoughts! Firstly, I read less last year – I really couldn’t focus for long stretches of time and although lockdown offered the opportunity that I’d previously wished for (unstructured time at home to read!), I didn’t use it the way I imagined.

    Secondly, although I enjoyed many online literary events that I previously would not have had access to, they paled in comparison to live events, where I enjoy the engagement with other readers, buy lots of books in the festival ‘bookshops’ and generally feel part of the book community.

    Finally, I don’t browse in online bookshops. I’ll occasionally follow the algorithms set by Goodreads etc, to see what they turn up, but it never results in buying a book (the furthest I go is to read a sample chapter). My book buying last year was influenced by bloggers, and the Readings magazine.

    • Thanks Kate. I guess I had one reason for reading less last year, but I can understand your reason too. I can imagine that if I’d been in that situation I probably wouldn’t have used my unstructured time well either. Somehow my time management isn’t great when I have lots of free time.

      I agree with you about live events being much better, but I did actually quite like online ones too, partly because they’re better than nothing and partly because I could get to some I’d never usually get to. However, I find I don’t prioritise them as highly.

      And yes I don’t browse online bookshops either. Very occasionally I notice what they suggest for me but it doesn’t result in my buying books. Usually I laugh because I can see that they are books either that my reading group is reading so others have bought them or I’m just intrigued because often they are close to the sorts of books I would read because they’re the current new fiction, or whatever. I think my book buying last year was mainly influenced, as it usually is, by awards announcements and to some degree by bloggers.

  3. Dearth of crime fiction, eh ? – tsk !!
    And yes, audiobooks should DEFINITELY be covered in some statistical way. Why, I alone have bolstered their sales by a v. large factor ! 😀

    • Exactly M-R, you clearly have and your contribution should be recognised! Interesting that they are still not effectively counted. After all, things bought online are already in computer systems and audiobooks and books are mostly nought online.

    • M-R I find audiobooks very expensive. I get through say 4 per week, 200 a year or $6,000 retail. Most I get from the library and I have an Audible account which I sort of fell into and which I keep going because Amazon never lets you go. What about you? Do you use the library or BorrowBox?

      • I don’t know about M-R but hopefully she’ll answer Bill (she’s up early in the morning, usually, it seems!)

        I bought a few for my ma-in-law over a decade ago, and thought they were expensive. I don’t use them a lot, but the ones Mr Gums and I have listened to on recent road trips have been using the library’s Borrowbox service. I’m thinking one day I might end up with Audible but that would only be if I/we started listening to a lot of them and found the library’s selection limiting.

        • I’ve just started listening to my first ever audio book – I thought I’d dislike it as I love books as entities and love reading in bed with a good book – but have so far found listening to one much more enjoyable than I thought. It’s a novel by Alain de Botton. I’ve been compelled by some sight issues, but also because the book I wanted to read was only held by our local library in audio book form.

          It’s been proof to me that I need to push myself to give new things a try much more instead of assuming that I won’t like them! I’ve been involved mostly in classical music all my life, my music teacher here is getting me into punk rock and grunge – and I’m loving it!

          So a tick for audio books and rock music!

          Hope you are keeping well Sue. Snow forecast here tomorrow, gosh it’s cold and icy today – how are things in your part of the country? Did you ever get around to reading the Steven Carroll book?

        • Lovely to hear from you Sue. I’m late to the audiobook world too, feeling like you that I wouldn’t like it, but I’ve always had in mind that they’d be an option if my eyesight even became a problem. Something is better than nothing after all! I think I have to choose what I “read” by audiobook, and I do have concerns with some styles of reading or voices, but overall, I think they are a good option.

          And, haha, re rock and grunge. I’ve always been eclectic in my music tastes. I love classical and subscribe to classical concert series, but I also go to the folk festival, love some rock, some country, some jazz, some indie, etc. Music is just wonderful.

          Going to be cold and icy here too and I’m driving to Berrima for lunch where it is to be worse I think. Gloves and beanie weather!

          No, sorry, I’m still reading review books sent to me last August!

      • No, I’ve found that nothing can compare to Audible’s provision of a huge dB of authors, with storylines and narrators listed in detail. And th llbraries here are not enthusiastic about audiobooks – the fault is ours, the “readers”, of course – so there’s really no comparison. You’re right about the price; but I’m lucky to have a younger sister who contributes a year’s-worth on my birthdays; and (apart from yarn) audiobooks are my sole, strictly speaking unnecessary, expenditure. 😀

  4. You’ve certainly given us food for thought this week Sue.
    Firstly, the bump in book sales has been noted in the UK and USA too which is fabulous. I do hope people continue with the habit. It was difficult to get hold of books at times – even online because of a problem with a distribution warehouse. But people got creative – in our neighbourhood there were two little free libraries created which were well utilised. We put a box of books at our gate and just told people to take what they wanted.

    It was indeed the debut and indie authors who suffered. If someone goes online to buy a book, they’ll likely gravitate to authors who they have experienced previously or had recommended to them. They’re unlikely to choose an unknown, especially if they are watching the pennies.

    My experience was that I read less than normal – though all my social activities were cancelled, oddly it didn’t result in any more time to read during the day and then at night I was often too tired to read. My selection of books didn’t change at all though – I just read the same kind of books I would have done anyway.

    I never browse on line – I tried it with an independent bookshop but it was far too difficult.

    • Thanks Karen, and it looks like you mirror me pretty perfectly … you read less, read the same sort of stuff and didn’t browse on line.

      I’ve just realised one proviso. I did browse online a couple of times when I wanted to buy books for someone whose reading tastes are different and I couldn’t go to a shop.

      I didn’t really confront the supply problem, probably because I didn’t buy a huge amount.

  5. Hi Sue, good to see book sales are up for Australian literature. The majority of the books I buy are Australian. I did buy more books last year because I couldn’t access my library as much as I would have liked. I did read more of my TBR books, and this is the case this year. However, my TBR still grows. I do browse online for rare books, but I don’t buy online. I don’t like zoom, and I rather go to a literary event than see one on line. As for cook books there are abundance of them, and our op shop gives them away. They are like our photo frames, in that far too many are donated. (I do browse recipes on line.)

    • Ah interesting comments Meg. Buying more because of reduced access to libraries and reading more of your TBR are both perfectly logical.

      Are you a rare book collector? I’m interested that you browse them but don’t buy them?

      I prefer live events too but I enjoyed the few online ones I went to, more than I expected.

      I love that your op shop gives cookbooks away. I don’t buy them at all anymore, because there are just so many good recipes online. Like you I browse them a lot! And I have an app that I enter favourite ones into. Better than the old recipe cards! I need to weed all the recipes I’ve printed! (I didn’t know that about photo frames but makes sense.)

  6. As you probably know, I’ve worked in an Independent bookshop in inner west Sydney for nearly 13 years. What we found interesting over the past 12 months is seeing customers returning to the shop that we hadn’t seen in years. People whose lives had got busy with work and kids and smart phones. People who suddenly found themselves working from home for most of last year in their small inner west homes with their partners and kids and dogs all crammed in together. People who in between conference calls, took turns taking the dogs and kids for walks to get out of the house. People who hadn’t had time to stroll around their suburb for ages, suddenly found themselves walking into our bookshop again.

    The trick will be to see if they keep on reading now that they’re heading back into the office.

    • That’s a really interesting observation and anecdotal evidence Brona. And yes, the thing will be whether, having rediscovered reading, they’ll stick to it. I predict a gradual tailing off, but who knows? Maybe some kids will get hooked!

  7. Such a great piece, Sue. My reading didn’t change at all last year, though I seem to be in the minority there. Meeting over 60 booksellers on my east coast book tour in March was fascinating because I got to hear how they had all fared. Book sales were up everywhere (and dramatically so), with the exception of the bookshops in Melbourne’s CBD. Lockdown was an absolute killer. They lost the lunchtime foot trade and all the overseas tourists who are so essential to sustaining their business. I hope they all survive the pandemic and readers support them, be it online or in store (when possible again).

    • Thanks Irma … and what a great opportunity you had to check all this out. I guess the Melbourne story is not surprising but let’s hope they can pick up again. So good to hear that everywhere else things looked up. How good is that?

  8. Great post and some interesting replies. I would have to say my reading habits did not change during Covid restrictions. I buy from a local bookshop, borrow from the library and access library ebooks. However, my preferred reading genre did change. I was more crime series orientated but during Covid I veered away to lighter content. Probably the equivalent of turning off the television when it all gets a bit much.

    • Thanks Gretchen … it’s interesting that some clearly reacted your way, by moving to lighter fare, while others of us didn’t really. It’s completely understandable. It would be interesting to see whether people television watching preferences changed too?

      • Thanks for raising this issue, it’s fascinating to see how readers have been affected. On the subject of television, I watch iView because I can control the viewing. Not surprisingly, a lot of series are based on books!

        • Thanks Gretchen … it has been interesting to see the different responses. iView is a great resource isn’t it.

          And yes, re series based on books. I must say that the P&P miniseries was so much more satisfying than the movies have been. I reckon short stories are good for movies, and books better for miniseries.

  9. My reading didn’t change much, either in content or in numbers.
    One thing that did change was that I went out of my way to buy new books, mostly Australian. To help keep my favourite booksellers in business I alternated orders of 4-5 books between Readings and Benns Books Bentleigh (and I’ve done the same thing during this latest lockdown). No, I am not going to tell you how much it was, suffice to say I’m glad I was sitting down when I saw the total and the monthly average on screen!
    I’ve always spent most of my discretionary money on books, but over the pandemic I surpassed myself because I wasn’t, for example, spending any money on petrol, lunches out, going to concerts and the like.

    • Thanks Lisa … that’s a good point too, I think, that is, that some (many?) people changed the balance of their spending because some of the things they spent on they no longer could. From what Irma said above, it sounds like spending more money on Melbourne bookshops was much needed!

      (My American friend commented the other day on how little her daughters had driven their cards, so not only was little money spent on petrol but when it came to service time, they needed little service. Also things like tyre wear will have slowed down etc. All these little things that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent straight away.

  10. Book sales being up in “discount department stores” implies a lot of general fiction (AWWC review numbers also put us Lit types in the minority). You know I don’t rate Jane Harper but good to see Trent Dalton selling, he certainly seems to get big displays.
    I think I might have bought less last year, partly from being in permanent iso but also because it bugs me owning new books that I’ve paid for and not read, for years in some cases.
    As for browsing online. I find it very unsatisfactory. I browse Audible classics sometimes but find it impossible to browse new fiction because it’s never presented in a way that points to something interesting (in fact it nearly always points to Jane Harper and Trent Dalton)

    • Yes, good point Bill re discount department stores, though I remember that every now and then my reading group would find something more interesting to us there.

      I try not to be bugged by owning books I haven’t read as it’s been a lifelong “problem” for me. I justify it by saying I’m supporting the industry and I don’t spend money on golf clubs or ski equipment – just a yoga mat. I don’t spend money on hair colouring or perms. I also don’t buy make-up, just some basic plain dry-skin moisturisers. I reckon I’m way ahead!! (Though, ahem, I should admit that I do spend money on restaurants.)

      • Before blogging, if I bought a book I would have it half read by the time I got home, and if I bought a bag of books second hand I would have them read by the end of the week. Now, between buying up one shop’s entire Australian stock, and my father’s collection, and bloggers’ recommendations (and having money to spend) I have books glaring at me and making me feel guilty.

        • Well just stop it. Repeat after me … Books are good, reading is good, guilt about books and reading is not good. And if you still feel guilty, just throw a sheet over them so you can’t see them. You can peek under the sheet, of course, to get the next book to read. (All this is my advice, not what I achieve myself, it goes without saying.)

  11. For some weird reason just about every book I picked up at the beginning of Covid featured some sort of disease or pandemic, I couldn’t get away from it. Not being able to browse in bookshops was just about the worst thing for me, browsing online is just not the same. I did buy quite a few books online though. I really love secondhand bookshops, ones that have older books which can be difficult to find, but there aren’t many around now. Luckily I still have a lot of unread books on my own shelves.

    • Love your input Katrina. It’s so interesting hearing people’s different experiences and perspectives. I love secondhand shops for finding older Australian fiction, in particular, but I have to drive out of my regular area for a good one. Like you, though, I always have books on my shelves to read.

  12. My reading during the pandemic changed drastically. During the lock down in my area, which lasted around 50 days, I was buying e-books like crazy. I’ve attended more virtual author events than I can remember, with authors ranging from Roddy Doyle to Alison Bechdel. I joined two new online book clubs, one hosted by my local library and the other out of Eatonville, Florida, home of the Zora Neale Hurston society. Then, I started a two-person book club with my mom. After libraries re-opened here, I stopped buying many books because circulation numbers were dismal, so I felt it important to help and demonstrate the importance of a library to a community. I used to be a person who bought used books on Amazon for as little as possible, but now, when I buy a book because I want to own it or it would be impossible to get from a library (like many Australian titles!) I buy from 1) Google Books, 2) Whatever bookstore hosted the online author event that led me to buy the book, 3) through a vendor that gives a cut of their earnings to the local independently black-owned bookstore, or 4) a Kindle book because the author is self-published and only available through that platform.

    • Wow, how fascinating Melanie. It sounds like the pandemic had more impact on your reading than on most prople’s. Such an interesting response. I love the thought that has gone into your decisions too.

      I was in online book groups from the mid 90s to mid 00s and they were really special, but blogging took over and I found I couldn’t keep up.

      • I’m surprised by how flexible I was to all the changes. I’ve always been a bit controlling of my environment to avoid anxiety (or as a result of it), but something about the pandemic made me focus inward and try to roll with things.

        • Silver lining then? (BTW You sound very much like Daughter Gums – in all of this. How you’ve always been and how you were during the pandemic. I hope it all works for the better in the long run…)

        • I’m honestly feeling better about most things in regards to my mental health and anxiety. I hope the things your daughter has learned over the course of the pandemic stick with her in healthy ways, too!

  13. I was distracted during the pandemic and found it difficult to concentrate for long so I seemed to read less than usual. Interestingly I switched more into non-fiction. The pandemic didn’t overly concern me, yet I still found my attention span was reduced.

    Our local library staff told me their statistics showed reduced foot traffic during the pandemic (the library was closed for a significant amount of time, but even after opening again the number of people using the library was reduced – not sure if this was fear of the virus, annoyance at signing in and out, or the fact they had got used to ordering online). They did find people were borrowing less and spending more time online. Interesting!

    • Interesting isn’t it, Sue, how distracting the pandemic could be. Because of my parents illness/deaths I really can’t know how it affected me, but I imagine I would have been distracted.

      Interesting insight from your local library staff. I’m loving all these experiences and pieces of info.

  14. I was stuck in France until fairly recently. I had a decent TBR pile, but as the lockdown dragged on, and the pile got lower and lower, I began to worry.
    While I had been able to order books online pre-pandemic, once things locked down this became impossible. I considered buying a tablet so I could download items, but restrictions aimed at prioritising transport/delivery of medical equipment etc meant I couldn’t get one.
    I discovered Little Free Libraries in a few nearby villages. While most of the books were in French (and some were great – a whole Marcel Pagnol series that I loved), occasionally I found the cast-off library of visiting English-speaking tourists or residents. At the mercy of other peoples’ tastes, I nevertheless relished the opportunity to read a wide range of books that I wouldn’t normally consider.
    I left quite a few of my favourite books in the LFL of my village, hoping that the joys of Australian literature spread in that part of southern France!

    • Oh, how interesting Meredith. My first reaction, was “but there are eBooks” and then I read further and realised that you didn’t at the time have a device to read them on. I would start to panic if I started to get into the situation of no books to read. I love that you found LFL. I look in the ones around me and almost never see anything of interest BUT I reckon that if I were desperate my definition of what is of interest would change – and I might in fact surprise myself! I’m glad that the by-product is that you’ve left Aussie lit behind for others to find and, hopefully, be pleasantly surprised.

      BTW I hope you have bought a tablet now – or a smart phone – so that you will have more options in future! I swore I would never read a book on a smart phone, but I do have a book on the go now that I mostly read on my tablet but that I do read occasionally on the phone if I’m out and about. I’m getting used to it!

  15. The stat’s and patterns sound similar to the situation in the US and Canada too. Also as far as the struggle for indie shops. Here they have really made an effort, sometimes putting their entire catalogue online and arranging for free delivery depending on the size of an order. One frustrating note was an indie shop that refused to accept cash payments (“fear of transmitting the virus” and a declaration that “everyone is doing this” which was just an excuse, even in early days, revealing the sort of customers they prioritize). I do have the option of paying with credit but I have not always had the option and am critical of businesses that do not recognize how many people in society are unbanked and/or cannot access the credit economy for a variety of reasons. And of course a pandemic is an excellent opportunity to recognize all sorts of injustices and try to adjust….or, not…an opportunity to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. #buildbackbetter

    • My guess is that the situation re reading and book selling is probably similar around the developed world Buried. Our closest indie shop did free home delivery too as well as click-and-collect. I didn’t use it, but I did use a Melbourne one for Easter gifts last year for our family. They were inundated and went above and beyond.

      For a bookshop to treat customers that way is unconscionable. Of all retail businesses they should espouse an understanding of and care for humanity. As many of us have said, there’ll be PhD ideas for centuries from this pandemic.

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