Will the UK stay in love with reading post-lockdown?
Ten years ago, the book sales narrative spoke of the growing popularity of digital book sales, with physical editions remaining on the shelves.
Figures from the Publishers Association in 2012 saw digital book sales increase by 54% while physical book sales fell by 5%.
Fast forward to 2021 and UK publishing sales hit a new industry high of £6.7bn, with physical book sales leading the way. What happened? The pandemic has helped, of course.
As Publishers Association chief executive Stephen Lotinga explained, books provided the nation with much-needed entertainment and comfort as the pandemic dragged on.
But more interestingly, as older readers returned to books, younger audiences found themselves reading through social media.
Lotinga cited the wild growth of TikTok communities as the beating heart of fiction and sales of young adult titles, driving much of the industry’s growth.
Talk with AM CityRuth Howells of the Publishers Association said Colleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles were particularly popular on the Chinese social media giant, thanks to aesthetic covers and quirky videos.
Howells said what’s particularly interesting is publishers’ widespread embrace of TikTok as a primary form of marketing: pumping budgets into BookTokkers when they would traditionally have funded expensive book tours or store launches. .
Accounts such as ‘booksonthebedside’, ‘readwithfran’ and ‘between2books’ feature colorful stacks of physical editions, as well as reviews of the latest titles.
Analysts echoed Howells’ point and explained that TikTok came at the “perfect time” for publishers during lockdown. “They [publishers] were scrambling to find another way to reach readers once bookstores were closed due to the lockdown,” said Enders analyst Joseph Evans.
“The TikTok algorithm is renowned for connecting people to the niches they care about and it’s ideal for visual media, making books an art form,” he said.
However, all is not well for the book market and as with all lockdown wins, what goes up normally comes down.
Sarah Riding, retail partner at law firm Gowling WLG, said AM City that TikTok has been “ahead of the game” in helping the book sales trend.
However, she said the reality was that “publishers cannot rely solely on the popularity of consumer recommendations via social media, but rather continue to penetrate the underlying behavioral needs of readers to ensure that copy sales digital and paper are continuing in earnest”.
Inflationary pressures are also weighing heavily. All eyes turned to the cost of an average paperback in particular, which could be pushed above the £9.99 threshold for the first time.
As Evans explained, the rising cost of paper, glue, and shipping has crippled publishers, especially independents.
“The problem is that they [independent publishers] need to raise prices, but they can’t if they want to stay competitive,” he said.
This also applies to the big 4 publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette and HarperCollins), who have to deal with soaring prices, while keeping the attention of bookworms as the world open for good.
However, Fiona Orford-Williams, director of the Edison Group, said book sales “tend to hold up well in a recession, with more people choosing to read rather than go out”.
As books are low-cost items, they will continue to be popular choices for “a welcome gift” during the important Christmas period, she added.
However, what we can’t forget is that books will compete with other home entertainment, like Netflix and newspaper subscriptions, as people will make choices about what to cut.
“Concerns about impending geopolitical risks may also increase the need for evasion,” according to Susannah Streeter, senior investment and market analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.
She added: “Streaming services will no doubt continue to be competitive, but more people can choose the one-time purchase of a big blockbuster over a longer-term TV subscription. There is a risk that as bills increase and income declines, sales will suffer.
“But rather than being seen as petty luxuries, books are increasingly seen as essential expenses, especially as the mental health benefits of reading for relaxation also appear to be driving the upward trend in recent sales.”
So while TikTok trends may have been good enough for pandemic users, the impending cost-of-living crisis may require more than well-edited videos.