Printed book sales pass 200m in 2020 despite pandemic

An estimated 202 million printed books were sold in the UK in 2020
An estimated 202 million printed books were sold in the UK in 2020

More than 200 million printed books were sold in the UK last year for the first time since 2012, despite the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Bookseller magazine reported that statistics from official book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan showed an estimated growth of the UK book market in 2020 of 5.2% by volume, equating to a total of 202 million books being sold, which was worth £1.76bn, up 5.5% on 2019.

The figure is said to have represented the largest rise in volume for the printed books market since 2007, while the annual value was at its highest since 2009.

This comes despite physical book retailers – apart from essential shops like supermarkets – facing prolonged periods of shutdown during 2020, including the national lockdowns from 23 March to 15 June and 5 November to 2 December, plus when subject to regional lockdown or tier system rules.

According to The Bookseller, the best-selling title of 2020 was Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse. Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club was second while cookbook Pinch of Nom – Everyday Light was third.

Crime thriller The Thursday Murder Club, the debut novel from TV presenter and writer Osman, was one of the numerous blockbusters printed by Suffolk-headquartered book printer Clays last year.

Sales director Vicky Ellis told Printweek: “It was certainly a year like no other for peaks and troughs! During the first lockdown we saw orders drop very low and we furloughed some of our employees. However, when the retail market opened up again in June we saw numbers rocket with the addition of an extra ‘Super Thursday’ on 1 September and a very strong publishing programme from our publishers.

“The demand for books remained incredibly high for the rest of the year and continues to be strong during the recent lockdown. Over the last five years we have seen a shift to more orders and lower run lengths and this year was no exception to that, with orders reaching an all-time high and the average run length dropping further.”

She was unsurprised that demand for books has remained high throughout the pandemic, feeling that people turn to other media channels when their usual recreational activities are either cancelled or reduced during lockdown periods.

“There are probably only so many Netflix series you can watch before you decide you want to do something else! People probably found that they had more time and books are also a good form of escapism to get away for a moment from the situation we have found ourselves in.

“So much of what we do now is on screens and I think the physical book still offers a break from this. Books are also an accessory in the home, people like to have their books on display, you can’t do that with an e-book.”

With many shops closed, Ellis said people switched to buying more books online, while a lot of the high street retailers “worked hard to improve their online offering”.

“ also launched during the pandemic, which was perfect to help support the local independent bookstores,” she added.

Stephen Docherty, group chairman at Glasgow-headquartered book printer Bell & Bain, felt that much of the spike in demand has been due to an increased thirst for educational content.

He told Printweek: “People either want to educate themselves or take themselves into another world, away from the one that they’re living in at the minute. Books were on the up anyway – they are in fashion – but we’ve been [printing] a lot of home learning.

“I believe home learning is a cracking thing. I find it strange that one thing the government haven’t done is issued packs for adults and parents – it wouldn’t take much, and it wouldn’t have to be much.

“The key thing about writing it down is you see what’s done, and you don’t have the internet there to cheat or do anything else, and at least the parents get a bit of education as well. It’s a great time to get involved with your kids, it’s great to be learning with them.”