A decade ago, the narrative of bookselling was of the surging popularity of digital book sales, with physical editions left on the shelf.
Figures from the Publishers’ Association in 2012 saw digital book sales shoot up 54 per cent while physical book sales dipped five per cent.
Fast forward to 2021 and UK publishing sales have hit a new industry high to £6.7bn, with physical book sales leading the way. What happened? The pandemic helped, of course.
As chief executive of the Publishers Association Stephen Lotinga explained, books provided the nation with the entertainment and comfort they so badly needed as the pandemic lingered on.
But more interesting, whilst older readers returned to the books, younger audiences found their way into reading via social media.
Lotinga cited the wild growth of TikTok communities as the beating heart of fiction and Young Adult title sales, driving much of the industry’s growth.
Speaking with City A.M., Publishers Association’s Ruth Howells said Colleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles were particularly big hitters on the Chinese owned social media giant, thanks to aesthetic covers and quirky videos.
Howells said what has been particularly interesting is publishers’ grand embrace of TikTok as a main form of marketing: pumping budgets into BookTokkers when they would have traditionally funded book tours or expensive store launches.
Accounts such as ‘booksonthebedside’, ‘readwithfran’ and ‘between2books’, show colourful stacks of physical editions, as well as reviewing 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 an alternative way to reach readers once book shops were closed from lockdown,” reckons Enders analyst Joseph Evans.
“The TikTok algorithm is famously good for connecting people with the niches people are interested in and it is great for visual mediums, making books an art form”, he said.
However, it is not all rosy for the book market and like with all lockdown wins, what goes up normally goes down.
Retail partner at the law firm Gowling WLG Sarah Riding told City A.M. that TikTok has been “ahead of the game” in terms of helping the book sale trend.
However, she said the reality was “publishers cannot rely solely on riding the popularity of consumers recommendations via social media but instead continue to penetrate the underlying behavioural needs of readers to ensure sales of both digital and paper copies continue in earnest”.
Cost inflation pressures also loom large. Eyes have been on 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 independent ones.
“The problem is that they [independent publishers] need to raise prices, but they can’t if they want to remain competitive”, he said.
This also applies to the Big 4 publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, and HarperCollins), which need to grapple with soaring prices, as well as keeping bookworm’s attention as the world opens up for good.
However, Fiona Orford-Williams, director at Edison Group, said book sales “tend to hold up pretty well in recessionary times, with a greater number of people choosing to read rather than go out”.
As books are low ticket items, they will continue to be popular choices for “an appreciated gift” in the important Christmas period, she added.
However, what we cannot forget is that books will be competing against the likes of other household entertainments, like Netflix and newspaper subscriptions, as people make choices on what to cut.
“Worries about looming geopolitical risks may also be heightening the need for escapism,” according to Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.
She added: “Streaming services will undoubtedly continue to be competition but more people may choose a one off purchase of a fat blockbuster over a longer term TV subscription. There is a risk that faced with mounting bills and squeezed income, sales could take a hit.
“But rather than being perceived as little luxuries, books are increasingly being seen as essential expenditure particularly given that the mental health benefits of reading for relaxation also seem to be behind the trend of higher recent sales.”
So while TikTok trends may have been good enough for pandemic users, the looming cost of living crunch may mean publishers need more than well-edited videos to sustain sales.