Pandemic has proven a boom to the publishing industry

Lockdown reading

Cosy crime, cookbooks and a surprise hit: what we’ve really read in the pandemic

Lockdown likes … the bestsellers.
Lockdown likes … the bestsellers.

It was a chance to finally get around to Tolstoy or Proust, but the charts tell a different story. Which books did we actually turn to in the lockdowns?

 Richard Godwin Sat 11 Dec 2021 04.00 EST

Back in spring 2020, when it became clear that coronavirus wasn’t going away, book lovers spied an opportunity for a rare, government-mandated reading holiday. Here, at last, was a chance to have a go at Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Robert Macfarlane reported that he was working his way through the great Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. Ali Smith urged readers towards Boccaccio’s Decameron. Diana Evans’s thoughts turned “heavenwards” by way of Homer’s Odyssey. I downloaded 27 hours of The Brothers Karamazov audiobook in anticipation.

All lovely ideas. With 20 months of hindsight, however, which books did we actually end up turning to? The bestseller lists from the three different lockdowns may not tell you the contents of Britain’s soul, but then again, the numbers do not lie. We read: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Sophie Hinchliffe’s Mrs Hinch: The Little Book of Lists. Lots of David Walliams, who topped the Lockdown 1 and Lockdown 2 charts with Slime and Code Name Bananas respectively. JK Rowling: the first three Harry Potter books steadily rose up the charts through the pandemic. Joe Wicks. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. A Pinch of Nom, plus spin-offs. Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.

So: cosy crime, uncosy crime, tidying up books, weight loss books, self-improvement books, children’s books, books offering cutesy wisdom, romance and escapism all did well during the pandemic. But then again, so did the books industry as a whole. Despite the chaos of lockdown – bookshop closures, supply chain issues, disruption to release schedules, cancelled literary festivals, live talks and book clubs – by the end of 2020, overall sales of print books were up 5% year-on-year, according to industry watchers Nielsen BookScan, with the upwards trend continuing this year. Fiction did particularly well – adult fiction increased 8% in volume terms, with 147m books sold. So too did children’s books, up 7%, to 109m books. Overall, the British public spent £1.8 bn on 202m print books. Digital sales soared, ebooks growing 16% and audiobook sales 21% year on year.

“Books had a real moment,” says Hannah Bourton, publishing director at Viking, which scored the big hit of the pandemic with Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club. “They were immediate, they were accessible. We all wanted to escape into different stories.”

The UK doubled the amount of time it spent reading books, from 3.5 hours to six hours a week

“It sounds bad, but the pandemic has been quite good for us,” agrees Phoebe Morgan, editorial director of HarperCollins. “Particularly in the commercial area of the market. Obviously there have been times where things have been difficult – and especially for the authors. But it has also shown that there’s a bigger appetite for reading than ever.”

Even so, many people – myself included – found that they couldn’t necessarily follow through on their grand ambitions. “I heard a lot of people say that now was the time to read all of the books that they’d always meant to read, or finally sit down and write their novel,” says Damian Barr, the author of Maggie and Me and presenter of the Big Scottish Book Club. “But what I found was that the constant state of emergency really fractured my ability to concentrate.” He turned to poetry instead: Mary OliverMark Doty, Richard Scott. “I found poetry meaningful and sustaining but short enough that I could manage it.” Personally, I abandoned Dostoevsky pretty swiftly, and soon found my level was the odd audiobook and as many Inspector Maigret mysteries as I could lay my hands on.

Still, the uptick in book sales shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. When museums, galleries, theatres, cinemas and concert venues closed in March 2020, books (along with TV) were an obvious source of refuge: cheap, immersive, low-tech and solitary. A survey by Nielsen in May 2020 found that 41% of British people were reading more; the UK as a whole doubled the amount of time it spent reading books, from 3.5 hours to six hours per week. Philip Stone of Nielsen even noticed a “brief spike” in physical book sales just prior to the first lockdown, which he puts down to panic buying. “People really did rush out to buy books to keep them company as they bedded in.”

Once the shops were closed, publishing was unusually well positioned to capitalise, argues Stone. “Even before the pandemic, online retail accounted for about 50% of the books market, so book consumers were pretty used to buying online.”

So which books did we turn to in that first lockdown, when the world around us seemed so uncertain and alarming? Alongside pre-pandemic bestsellers by Lee Child and Hilary Mantel were school textbooks by homeschooling parents and the aptly timed thriller Lockdown by Peter May. Baking books did well, says Stone, adult colouring books had a second wave, and anything on personal development and mindfulness also sold strongly. Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter protests helped to focus attention on writers of colour through the summer: Bernardine Evaristo and Reni Eddo-Lodge both sold well.

Richard Osman.
Richard Osman … his debut novel The Thursday Murder Club has been a big hit. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

But overall it’s what’s not on the charts that tells the bigger story. With the usual channels of recommendation disrupted, Amazon’s sales algorithms and supermarket buyers played an outsized role in shaping taste. “Tesco really stole a lot of market share and that had a huge influence on what people were reading,” says Bourton. “A book like Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, which was already selling well in spring, became a big ongoing phenomenon. The high street plays a huge role in breaking new authors, whereas what the supermarkets excel at is the familiar. Sainsbury’s didn’t actually take any new titles last April – they just sold more of what they already had.”

Morgan says that the closure of bookshops actually helped sales for the commercial thrillers and crime fiction in which she specialises. “A lot of the stuff I was publishing was really overperforming in the supermarkets.” She noticed that “locked-room” mysteries performed particularly well: “An ensemble cast, assembled in a remote location, perhaps somewhere exotic.” Among big sellers were The Guest List by Lucy Foley, which is about a murder at a wedding on a remote Irish island, and The Chalet by Catherine Cooper, set in a snowed-in ski resort. “There’s an obvious reason for that when everyone is locked in their house and can’t actually travel anywhere,” she says.

The big mover has been The Plague by Albert Camus, which increased sales by more than 1,000%

However, the runaway hit was The Thursday Murder Club, an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery set in a retirement complex, published in September 2020. It has now sold well over 1 million copies, spawned a sequel (The Man Who Died Twice), and had its movie rights snapped up by Steven Spielberg. Osman is a well-known TV personality and Viking won the rights to the novel after a 14-way auction in 2019, so its success wasn’t totally out of the blue. Still, Bourton feels in retrospect it was perfectly placed to capitalise on the pandemic.

“It is a comforting story about a small community – and it also has such respect and reverence for characters who are older,” she says. “The main characters are all 70-plus and experiencing end-of-life care. That was reflecting something we were going through as a society with a sudden extreme loss of elderly people due to Covid.” We can expect more “cosy crime” in the future: the Reverend Richard Coles’s crime debut, Murder Before Evensong, is due in June next year. However, as Bea Carvalho, head fiction buyer at Waterstones, notes, all kinds of crime fiction did well. “There’s something comforting about the structure of crime novels, a puzzle that needs to fit together,” she says. “When the world is so uncertain and hard to understand, those traditional narratives, where by the end the author will have done the work for you – that’s pretty appealing.”

Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

The fact that Osman and Coles are celebrities tells its own story about the winners and losers in this period. The Bookseller found that, notwithstanding the industry’s success, 63% of authors had lost income in 2020 – with debut authors bearing the brunt. For those without name recognition or a pre-existing platform, the pandemic took its toll. “There were lots of authors who were published for the first time in lockdown who really missed out,” says Barr, who was forced to cancel all the events surrounding the paperback release of his own debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here. “We’re in danger of losing two or three years of amazing writers who just haven’t had the attention they deserve.”

For all the challenges of lockdown, there were stirring successes when stores finally reopened. “We’ve really felt the power of recommendation since we’ve welcomed customers back in again,” says Carvalho. “You can’t really get that from algorithms.” One of her most successful books has been The Appeal, by former screenwriter Janice Hallett, which tells the story of a murder at an amateur dramatic society via a series of letters and emails, but asks the reader to solve the mystery. Bookshops were closed when it was released in hardback in early 2021, and, as a debut author, Hallett was not afforded any supermarket listings and had little publicity. Waterstones sold only a thousand copies online in its first month. However, those who did read it urged their friends to buy it and when shops opened again, it began to sell in ever-larger numbers, becoming their bestselling book in July. Another hit was Exciting Times, a love triangle set among bratty young expats in Hong Kong by the young Irish writer Naoise Dolan. Released during the first lockdown, the combination of exotic locale, escapist love story and Rooney comparisons (just as the Normal People adaptation was on TV screens) hit a sweet spot.

There were also mini-trends. One was mythology. From children’s books about myths to contemporary retellings such as The Women of Troy by Pat Barker, Circe by Madeline Miller, or Ariadne by debut author Jennifer Saint, it seems we couldn’t get enough of those archetypes. Another was “armchair travel”. Actual travel books suffered badly – travel guides lost around 90% of sales in the first lockdown (though have mostly recovered) – but books that conjured specific locales fared well. And Carvalho has noted a huge increase in teenagers buying Japanese manga and graphic novels – often filming themselves doing so. This is a TikTok trend that has migrated over into real sales; she is now increasing the space devoted to manga across the chain.

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker
The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

Tom Robinson actually managed to open a new independent bookshop mid-lockdown: Gloucester Road Books in Bristol. He has been pleasantly surprised by how ambitious his new customers have been, reporting a roaring trade in Ann Quin’s highly experimental novel Berg, sold simply by recommending it to customers. Another success has been The Weak Spot by Lucy Elven, published by the tiny Prototype press.

“Bookshops develop and sustain relationships with their customers and their communities,” he says. “There was a growing consciousness about what Amazon and other low-cost retailers had done to books. I’m finding that people will take the hit of a couple of quid to order it from me instead. And there are lots of people who come in soliciting opinions, bringing in their recommendations, and telling me how they got on with them, too. I’ve realised this is such a significant part of what bookshops do.”

So did any of us fulfil those ambitions we set out with at the beginning of the pandemic? Old favourites have sold well over the last 18 months, says Jessica Harrison at Penguin Classics. “We noticed that people really were turning to those great doorstopper novels: Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Don Quixote, David Copperfield,” she says. “All of their sales increased by significant amounts in 2020, and sales are usually steady so it has been quite noticeable.” Nor has the trend stalled in 2021, she says, suggesting that these books are classics for a reason. The big mover has been The Plague by Albert Camus, which increased by more than 1,000% and is still selling strongly, as is Journal of a Plague Year by Daniel Defoe.

She also sold lots of books by writers of colour: Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and James Baldwin’s oeuvre all had an uplift. The major trend, however, was the Stoics. “Meditations by Marcus Aurelius was huge for us,” she says. “As was Letters from a Stoic by Seneca – that sold absolutely loads in lockdown – and so did Epictetus.” Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were also the two biggest classics audiobooks during lockdown. “I guess lots of people were looking for ancient wisdom during lockdown.” Coming soon to a supermarket near you, hopefully.

The bestselling books
Lockdown 1

March to June 2020

  1. Slime David Walliams
  2. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse Charlie Mackesy
  3. Mrs Hinch: The Little Book of Lists Sophie Hinchliffe
    Michael Joseph
  4. Normal People Sally Rooney
  5. Jack Reacher: Blue Moon Lee Child
  6. Where the Crawdads Sing Delia Owens
  7. Girl, Woman, Other Bernardine Evaristo
  8. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge
  9. Wean in 15 Joe Wicks
  10. The Family Upstair Lisa Jewell

Lockdown 2

November to December 2020

  1. Code Name Bananas David Walliams
  2. A Promised Land Barack Obama
  3. The Thursday Murder Club Richard Osman
  4. The Ickabog JK Rowling
    Little, Brown
  5. Guinness World Records 2021 Guinness World Records
    Guinness World Records
  6. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse Charlie Mackesy
  7. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Deep End Jeff Kinney
  8. Shuggie Bain Douglas Stuart
  9. A Del of a Life David Jason
  10. Jack Reacher: The Sentinel
    Lee Child & Andrew Child

Lockdown 3

January 2021 to April 2021

  1. Pinch of Nom: Quick & Easy Kay Featherstone & Kate Allinson
  2. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse Charlie Mackesy
  3. The Thursday Murder Club Richard Osman
  4. The Midnight Library Matt Haig
  5. Tap to Tidy Stacey Solomon
  6. Grown Ups Marian Keyes
  7. Where the Crawdads Sing Delia Owens
  8. Pinch of Nom: Everyday Light
    Kay Featherstone & Kate Allinson
  9. Pinch of Nom: 100 Slimming, Home‑style Recipes
    Kay Featherstone & Kate Allinson
  10. The Fast 800 Easy Dr Clare Bailey & Justine Pattison

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