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Book sales hit record highs in 2019, but publishers ‘now need help’


Book sales in the UK hit record levels in 2019, driven by a surge in audiobook and nonfiction titles, according to new figures released as publishers warn of the huge impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the industry.

Book sales rose to £6.3bn in 2019, up 4% on 2018, when sales fell for the first time in five years, and 20% on 2015. According to the latest figures from the Publishers Association (PA), overall print sales were up 3% to £3.5bn in 2019 and digital sales were up 4% to £2.8bn, driven by a 39% increase in audiobook downloads. Digital formats accounted for 44% of the market in 2019, up from 40% in 2015.

Strong nonfiction and reference sales, seen in bestsellers such as cookbook Pinch of Nom, Caroline Criado-Perez’s Invisible Women, and Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, saw the sector grow 23.1% to £1bn in 2019, when compared with 2015.

“In an age of often unreliable sources, people are increasingly looking to books for trusted information and are reading nonfiction voraciously across formats,” Hachette chief executive David Shelley told the association.

The growth in nonfiction stands in contrast to fiction. Despite the publication of highly anticipated novels such as Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, sales fell to £582m in 2019, down 5.6% when compared with 2015.

“Before the coronavirus pandemic, the industry was flourishing, with 2019 being the strongest year in the history of publishing. These robust figures reflect people’s ongoing need and desire for books,” said PA chief executive Stephen Lotinga. “[The figures] tell a story of pre-Covid success, but they do not reflect the significant challenges that publishers have faced during this pandemic. Despite those difficulties, we know that many people have continued to look to books for solace, enlightenment and entertainment.”

Publishers have anticipated declines in revenue of up to 75% as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, with bookshops closed for more than two months, publication dates postponed, orders for books cancelled and author tours called off. One success story was revealed on Tuesday, however, when Harry Potter publisher Bloomsbury reported a 28% growth in consumer sales in the four months ending in June 2020. Previously, Bloomsbury had predicted that its print revenues could fall up to 75% due to coronavirus, but print sales actually rose by 9%.

While bookshop sales have rebounded strongly since stores reopened on 15 June, the PA is warning that “publishing will require further support from the government to ensure a quick and full recovery”. Some small publishers have been forced to turn to crowdfunding to keep themselves in business, with Jacaranda Books and Knights Of appealing for donations after warning that they risked closure without immediate financial support.

The PA said that the emergency funding from the UK government to arts councils had helped a number of businesses, but said that “smaller businesses have been hit particularly hard, especially as many of them have not been able to use the government’s support schemes”. More than half of the PA’s members have been unable to furlough their staff because of the small scale of their operations.

“The UK publishing industry was on course to be worth £10bn by 2030 before coronavirus, but that will only happen now if the government properly supports our recovery. This means ensuring there is a fair market for books – particularly support for bookshops, avoiding a no-deal Brexit and providing vital funding for schools and universities so they can buy the education resources that students need to learn remotely,” said Lotinga, highlighting the vast swathes of educational material that publishers had made available for free to parents and teachers during the pandemic.

While online sales had been “incredibly useful” and “a vital source of revenue for publishers” during the pandemic, Lotinga warned that “we cannot have a situation where the main beneficiary of lockdown is a single large tech giant.” In April, Amazon’s customers were reported to be spending almost $11,000 (£8,500) a second on its products.

Lotinga pointed to the Competition and Markets Authority’s Digital Markets Taskforce, which is looking at unlocking competition in digital platform markets. “We believe there needs to be a proper hard look from the CMA at how the book market operates, to ensure that our online market is operating fairly,” he said.



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