It is a rare shaft of light in a dismal year: the return to reading. Against the backdrop of a deadly virus that saw many of us banished to our homes, the pandemic has been a boon to books. “Never has our need for stories and the art of storytelling been greater than in the time of Covid,” says the author Elif Shafak.

To judge by reports from publishers and anecdotal evidence, we have turned to literature as a means to understand or escape from a world in upheaval. Lockdowns provided time to finally work through that pile of must-reads by the bedside — or not. The need for distraction and solace also found its mark in a renewed enthusiasm for poetry.

The fruits of this could be read on the bottom line of the results of publishers, which reported rising sales and profits. The attraction of the sector was underscored in the fight between industry heavyweights to acquire Simon & Schuster, the venerable US publisher, which was finally bought in November for $2.2bn by Penguin Random House, a unit of German media group Bertelsmann.

All this seems markedly different from when the pandemic struck and the onset of lockdowns sent shivers through the book industry. In many countries bookshops were forced to close their doors. For a time even Amazon “deprioritised” books in order to focus on dispatching essential, healthcare-related items.

The familiar tools for the marketing and promotion of new books — festivals and launch parties, for example — moved online or disappeared altogether, taking with them the buzz and chatter that kept the industry humming. In the UK some publishers expressed concern about whether the wholesale distribution systems, the central nervous system of the trade, would be able to function properly.

One response was to postpone the publication of titles to later in the year, or even into 2021. This in itself generated a further problem: a pile-up of new publications in the autumn, which in turn prompted another wholly predictable bout of the anxiety that many titles would get overlooked in the flood. (They did.)

Yet, for all the habitual cultural pessimism, the reality of 2020 for the books world has turned out to be not so grim as many feared. While readers have taken the opportunity to read — and listen to — more books, the industry itself responded to the pandemic by changing the way it does business.

Column chart of UK book sales for the 21 weeks to Nov 7*, year-on-year change (%) showing Flight to the bookshelves

The most notable development has been the increased digitalisation of the retail side of the industry. A familiar tale of 2020 has been the transformation of the plucky independent bookseller that just about had a website before Covid-19 struck, into a nifty ecommerce operation able to take, process and dispatch online orders. More adept booksellers have drawn lessons from the world of social media to develop the communities that often build up around individual shops and to keep the conversation around books going.

In many ways this is nothing new. Booksellers have always played a role as tastemakers and influencers. Keeping loyal customers up to date with new titles and ideas for further reading via newsletters and mailshots is a long-established practice. But the realities of the pandemic forced an upgrade. Similarly, publishers sped up a move to digital platforms for the promotion of books, and cultivation and curation of reading communities.

The pandemic has also spurred attempts to provide a viable alternative to Amazon. Bookshop.org was conceived in the US before the pandemic with the aim of offering book buyers an online service that could match the scale of stock available on Amazon with the personalised service and sense of community typically associated with smaller retailers. In turn, independent booksellers would get a share of the business. Covid-19 turned an idea that struggled to raise funding from investors and expected to take a while to establish itself into a rapid success story that has since expanded into the UK and is now looking to move into continental Europe.

In the UK, sales of fiction titles were particularly strong in the first six months of the year, increasing 13 per cent to £285m, according to the Publishers Association. Digital — ebook and audio — was a particularly strong driver, helping to offset an overall decrease in print sales during the first half when lockdown restrictions had their greatest impact on business as publishers and retailers scrambled to put new systems in place.

In the US, print book sales rose 2.8 per cent in the first six months of the year, despite store closures, according to NPD BookScan. The upward trend accelerated in the third quarter.

Yet for all the innovation and resilience displayed through lockdown, certain familiar truths were also reinforced: how much readers cherish bookshops, those places of discovery and exchange. Those countries that chose to exempt bookshops from lockdown restrictions acknowledged their importance to many people and communities. In those where stores and readers are now emerging (or poised to) from lockdown, it is a reminder of what we have missed.

Frederick Studemann is the FT’s literary editor

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