I recently received this email from David Shelley at Hachette Publishing, along with many other contributors to the book industry, and am sharing it here as it contains some beautifully positive, useful and curious insights into the landscape of books right now, as we move away from a pandemic into a different set of ‘challenging’ circumstances.
As you will know, I love books — buying, reading, designing and illustrating them — and people sometimes ask me whether ‘books are dead’, or on the decline; the rather simplistic assumption being that digital advances have somehow pushed paper books off the shelf.
One of the loveliest highlights is learning that things are actually rather good in the book world. Not fabulously, sunnily glowing, but productively optimistic, fuelled by a return to reading courtesy of pandemic-enforced hibernation, and a significant growth in the numbers of younger readers.
It’s long, but well worth the read if, like me, you’re a bit soul-tired of bad news, sad endings, scary AI stories and financial and political developments which feel at best threatening, and at their worst (usually at around 3am), malevolent. Take some joy from David’s words as he talks about the growth in reading, strong book sales in Ukraine, Tik-Tokers’ love for books — and an uptick in the manufacture of book cases!
(I also noted excitedly that Hachette have bought Paperblanks, whose delicious, bejewelled notebooks I have bought for years. Having not seen them around recently, I’m glad to hear they’re still going to be there for my fevered collector’s hands.)
Enjoy this chunk of gently uplifting news. The email has been lightly edited for brevity.
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Dear authors, translators and illustrators,
I’m writing at the end of another eventful year to give an annual update on the current books market, to share some information about what’s happening at Hachette, and thoughts about what 2023 might hold for book publishing.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
As I think it’s important to find reasons to be cheerful right now, I thought I’d start with a few pieces of positive information about the overall state of the books market. Firstly, the data to the end of October shows that print book sales in the UK slightly increased in 2022 on 2021 — which was already a buoyant year for sales. Our figures show that audiobook sales have also shown some growth, and that ebook sales have remained steady.
Given the economic challenges in the UK, this is extremely heartening to see. There is a truism that two products are more able to withstand recessions than most — books and chocolate, because both are affordable luxuries that repay investment with great pleasure. For the hours of enjoyment that one gets from books and the depth of their emotional impact, I think they are terrific value for money compared to many other forms of entertainment (gaming, cinema, TV), and this year’s robust sales bear this out.
It is even better to see because, as has been well-documented, there was a boom in reading during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. The fact that the market has remained strong — and a long way up on the pre-Covid sales of 2019 — suggests that even after lockdowns had ended, people have kept up the reading habit. Looking back in history, there is precedent for this: there was a marked and permanent jump up in sales of novels after the Second World War as it was a habit that many acquired during that time. The hope is that these readers acquired during the Covid era will remain with us in the future.
In terms of trends in the market, the other thing to feel hopeful about is the boom in younger readers. We are seeing TikTok as an incredibly strong driver of book recommendations and sales, and much of this market is made up of teenagers and twentysomethings. Their preference is predominantly for physical books, and there is great focus from this market on the production values of books and an emphasis on collectability. One nice side-effect is a boom in the production of bookcases after gradual decline in previous years; many teenagers now have a large collection of books and want to display them. Plus there has been a real rise in the popularity of subscription boxes, where readers get a book every month; it feels like another testament to the power of curation, and how much people like having a book chosen for them.
Some key themes in fiction include novels that feature or combine romance, fantasy, suspense and that have inclusion at their heart. It’s always hard to generalise but a lot of the bestsellers recommended on TikTok feature worlds and experiences that are different to the reader’s own. I think we’re also seeing a (welcome) dissolving of borders between genres. Research has long shown that readers often don’t read within narrow genre parameters — ie wouldn’t categorise themselves as a ‘crime reader’ or ‘science fiction reader’ and that seems to be more true than ever for younger readers now who are more influenced by story and character than genre. As someone who used to work as an editor predominantly within a genre (crime) and was frequently annoyed by the way this was used by those outside it to compartmentalise or reduce the impact of it, I couldn’t be more pleased to see this largely artificial industry system start to crumble.
In non-fiction we have seen a real rise in our specialist publishing. Even though the internet holds information on every conceivable subject, people are increasingly turning to books to give them trusted, fact-checked and detailed information on a particular issue that they are invested in. One example of this is the success of our Jessica Kingsley list, which is the world’s leading publisher in the fields of autism, arts therapies and gender diversity and sold more books than ever in 2022.
One other very positive phenomenon is the continued rise of independent bookshops, not just in the UK but also in India, Australia and other key markets. The rise of ethical consumerism and localism seems to have grown during 2020–21 and we are seeing more consumers who want to buy their books from local and independent retailers. It’s something we’re keen on here as the hand-selling independent booksellers do can often launch an author’s career, and it’s why we’re proud to work with the Booksellers Association and to be the official sponsor of Independent Bookshops Week which had its biggest and best year yet in 2022.
I think it would be probably be reckless right now to try to predict what even the near future will hold for our industry as things are changing so fast. But the things we are gearing up for in 2023 are a continuation of the supply chain and consumer confidence challenges I mentioned earlier — none of these look set to get any better in the immediate future — yet also, I hope, a continued recognition that books are a vital way of getting through difficult times. Thinking about the books published across our lists, they variously provide escapism and entertainment; an educational route towards success; a means to help improve health, wellbeing or life satisfaction; a deep dive into complex issues that cannot be adequately covered in a social media post or newspaper article; a route into other people’s psychology; a source of joy for adults and children alike; and a vision for a better future.
Lastly, I just wanted to share one interesting export sales statistic with you, which is that we have observed that book sales in Ukraine were at exactly the same level in 2022 as in 2021 — this is in addition to various charitable books contributions. I think this is a striking testament to the bravery and tenacity of Ukrainian booksellers, a number of whom came to the Frankfurt Book fair and whom we met with there, and to the enduring power of books.
All my best,