The pandemic has books back in business again

Reading has picked up thanks to lockdowns and isolation

Published : 06 Jun 2021 09:28 PM | Updated : 07 Jun 2021 12:31 AM

Theaters went dark in London’s West End last year, while galleries closed and concert halls stood silent. But there was one creative industry that flourished during lockdown: the reading and publishing of books. 

Many in the industry, as well as parents and educators, are now hoping the habit will stick around post-Covid. My guess is it just might.

HarperCollins, one of the big five publishers dominating the Anglo-Saxon market on both sides of the Atlantic, had a “historic” final quarter of 2020. Then it posted a 45% jump in profits and a 19% increase in revenue in the quarter ending March 31, 2021, compared with the year-earlier period. Chief Executive Officer Charlie Redmayne points to profitable backlist sales: Favorite fantasy writers like J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin provided escapist thrills, while Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries provided isolation comfort food.

An April 19 NPD BookScan survey of the first quarter of 2021 saw sales of print books in the U.S. grow 29% over the same quarter in 2020 — the highest volume of first-quarter print sales since they began tracking it in 2004. Sales of adult non-fiction and juvenile fiction led the way. Rising sales of teenage fiction have cheered those who worried that a prolonged absence from the classroom might blunt children’s appetite for intelligent writing. Harry Potter, for instance, still works his magic. J.K. Rowling began publication of her Hogwarts series more than a quarter of a century ago, but revenue from her books rose by 7% over the last year. Her publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, saw sales overall rise by 22%, with both children’s and adult book sales soaring.

Youth has not lost its idealism either. Reflecting the serious concerns of Black Lives Matter and calls for a more egalitarian post-Covid economy, titles such as “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge and “Human­kind” by Rutger Bregman have been highly popular.

“People have picked up the reading habit,” says leading U.K. literary agent Georgina Capel, who represents bestselling historians like Andrew Roberts, Winston Churchill’s biographer, and 20th-century war chronicler (and fellow Bloomberg Opinion writer) Max Hastings. “After binge watching every boxset and Netflix series early in the pandemic, we found that there was a limit to what these guys can produce.” 

Capel may be right about this. Many adults who initially sought escapism in TV streaming found that its formatted pleasures soon palled. After a few months, we rediscovered the joys of reading.

Not everyone is buying new books though. Many readers of the Times Literary Supplement (which I edit) have been returning to the classics. Capel, for instance, has been rereading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, a surprisingly easy page-turner from the great German novelist who has a reputation as a difficult writer. In his work, dynasty meets Hamburg commercial life, stock markets thrill and spill and mental-health crises drive personal fortunes. He was more on point for 2021 than he could have known publishing it in 1901. 

Television watching and serious reading aren’t necessarily incompatible pursuits either. Bridgerton, a Regency-era bodice-ripper with a BLM slant, prompted many to revisit their dog-eared copies of Jane Austen’s contemporaneous novels of polite society (where bodices remain unripped). Youthful romantics — my sons included — were inspired by the BBC production of Irish writer Sally Rooney’s novel “Normal People” to devour her other works. Good timing because her next novel is set to come out in September.

Ahead of the centenaries of some classic works of 20th-century modernist literature, I have been picking up old copies and new studies of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Frances Wilson’s stylish, new portrait of DH Lawrence, “Burning Man,” is a must-read too. A spoonful of sugar makes all that literary medicine go down, so Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe, the knight-errant of Los Angeles, occupies my idle hours too. Digital books have also been selling well, but they have not dominated the market as once predicted. Jeff Gomez, author of “Print Is Dead,” prophesied in 2008 that books in printed form would “turn into a specialized taste, an art form” produced for an eccentric minority with a preference for “antiques.” Wrong and wrong again. In the U.K., sales of e-books peaked in 2014 and then started to decline — only to reverse during the first lockdown last spring. I suspect that many of us who read our papers online still prefer to furnish our rooms with well-thumbed volumes.

But although publishers are prospering, Inc. is the real winner from Covid-19. The one-click purchase giant delivered books to millions of new customers’ doors. Many now binge-buy, purchasing multiple volumes without having to worry about physically carrying armfuls of books back from retailers.

Of course, every silver lining has a cloud. New writers have found it hard to attract attention, and many titles set to be released in 2020 were shelved by publishers until the indie bookshops that know best how to promote them could reopen.  And we have yet to see the pandemic inspire any new literary classics. Writing in the TLS, critic and author Michael Lapointe acidly observed: “It is remarkable to see how, in a very short time, a series of clichés coalesced. In many of the pieces — some fiction, some non-fiction — nature begins returning; people get to know their neighbors; children are distracting; Zoom is a drag.” 

What writer will do justice to this strange, sad period of our history?

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board. 

Source: Bloomberg