A new report from BookNet Canada, the organization that compiles sales and other data about Canadian publishing, shows book sales are in an upward trajectory and recovering from a significant drop earlier in the year.
"I'm much more optimistic than I was in April and May," said Noah Genner, CEO of BookNet, who noted that lockdowns and bookstore closures resulted in a 34%-40% drop in retail sales throughout the first few months of the pandemic. "I couldn't see how we would find a way out of it back then. But over the least six to eight weeks, sales have been up. They have even been 12%-15% better than the same period last year," Genner said. He attributed this bump to consumers returning to stores and shopping as a result of pent up demand from the closures and lockdowns. Interest in hot titles, such a Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough and Stephenie Meyer's Midnight Sun has also lifted sales.
"What is really interesting from my standpoint in talking to the retailers and publishers and booksellers, is they all got entrepreneurial pretty darn quickly," said Genner. "We saw the small indies pivot and make sure their websites were up and running in big ways, That all happened quickly, more than was expected." He said the current sales trend is encouraging, but overall sales for the year are still down. Print sales for the first six months of 2020 were down at least 3 million units representing drop of C$63 million dollars compared with the same period for 2019.
"Early in the pandemic, we did a survey of consumers and many of them said they were going to read more, but were planning on reading books they already had on their shelves," he said. "Fortunately, that does not seem to be the case." Initially, there was a slight shift to digital purchases. In April, sales of e-books accounted for 25% of the market, up from a typical figure of about 18%, but in the second quarter of 2020, e-book share of sales declined slightly to 20% of purchases.
Audiobooks did not see a corresponding bump, and held at approximately 5% of units purchased. "We believe that audiobook purchases are related to commuting and since many people are working from home, audiobooks haven't seen the same lift."
Genner said the bricks-and-mortar retail environment remains tough and it is perhaps most difficult on larger bookstores and chain. "A lot of sales are online now and the sales that are happening at bookstores are now manual and more resource intensive. This cuts into margins. The bigger the store or stores, the more the margin price can hurt."
A large influx of new books coming into stores in the next month may be a mixed blessing. "Consumers buy new stuff," said Genner. "When there wasn't new stuff entering the market, there was a kind of apathy. Through the fall, the question is whether we get that excitement back or whether there is going to be too much stuff in the market. From a data perspective I'm curious to see how that plays out." Another consideration is whether or not booksellers have enough cash on hand to buy new inventory for the season, which may also impact sales.
Looking ahead, a second wave of infection that may come with colder weather also has the potential to stall the sales recovery. There are also concerns about a disruption in the supply chain, as lead times for books printed in China are growing longer. "If there is a big title pop, will publishers be able to restock bookstores in time?" All these considerations will be in flux throughout the remainder of the year and into next.
"We are dealing with a lot of uncertainty," said Genner. "But if we continue on the trajectory we have been on -- we are about 10% or 12% up for the period post period lockdown — and we can have a prolonged period of this, it would make up for some of the down time. I am still pretty sanguine."