The country has been in lockdown on-and-off for over a year now and people have used their time at home to take on new hobbies and interests, hoping to escape boredom and boost their mental or physical health.
According to the Publishers Association, this trend has led to soaring book sales. In the UK book sales rose 4% to £2.5b last year, with fiction sales climbing by 16%, from £571m to £688m in 2020. The publishing industry has boomed, despite the challenges of the past year.
But while book sales may have gone up in 2020, independent bookshops have struggled to survive through the pandemic, with lockdowns that forcing them to close for long periods of time.
“If I had to summarise it in one word, I’d say this past year has been challenging,” said Lloyd Sowerbutts, the manager of Libreria, an independent bookshop based in Tower Hamlets.
The 38-years-old from Tottenham Hale felt the government was flat-footed and slow when first deciding the future of non-essential shops, so he closed before he was ordered to. “We were doing an event in March, just before the lockdown, and I could sense the confidence of our customers lulling,” he said.
“Libreria closed two weeks before the government imposed a national lockdown. Then in the first few months of the first lockdown, it was a case of navigating through the changes in the bookselling industry.”
Faced with government restrictions, Sowerbutts had to find creative ways to get customers their books and keep his business running. One of his suppliers came up with a home delivery service, but restrictions meant customers could only order one book at a time – not particularly helpful with many people stuck at home and wanting to order in bulk.
“I found myself gaming that system and putting through multiple separate orders for one customer so that they could get all the books they desired at once.”
Libreria saw a revenue drop of around 80 or 90%, so finding innovative ways to raise cash – such as a subscription service and a fundraiser – were vital.
“A lot of love was shown by our loyal customers, and that softened the financial hits throughout the last year and enabled me to be in a position to reopen after the most recent lockdown, which was probably the hardest.”
“You don’t realise how much you need customers to walk through the door until it’s physically unviable for them to do so,” Sowerbutts added.
Classed as “non-essential”, bookshops were barred from opening for most of last year, but this was not the case for all shops that stock books. Supermarkets and some other shops that were considered “essential” were still allowed to sell books because of the nature of their primary business.
“They were able to profit at the expense of smaller, independent bookshops which had to remain closed. We were done a disservice by the government in that respect,” Sowerbutts said.
Online retailers were also less exposed to lockdown rules and bookshop owners across the UK saw their businesses bypassed, as more and more readers moved to online marketplaces.
Jane Giles, owner of Harry Brand, a small independent gift shop in Tower Hamlets with a book offering, said: “Amazon is a different kind of business model. If people want a book and they can’t afford it in a bookshop, they might want to go on to Amazon to find a good deal.”
The 56-year-old shop owner from Islington believes there’s more to Amazon’s success than just its ability to facilitate shopping sprees. She said: “Amazon can sell books so quickly because it doesn’t pay business rates in the same way that high-street shops do.” According to a report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research, UK’s bookshops can pay up to 11 times what Amazon does in corporation tax.
Besides not having to pay the same business rates, Amazon can also sell books at a different price than the one fixed by publishers, something UK bookshops can’t.
Giles, who saw her book sales revenue completely disappear over the pandemic, believes bookshops’ survival is in some way attributed to the organisation Bookshop.org, an “ethical alternative to Amazon that supports bookshops through online sales,” she said.
“Bookshop.org also offers a discounted price on books, but the difference between them and Amazon is that they give a portion of their income to independent bookshops,” said Giles.
Bookshop.org was launched in the UK in November 2020 at the request of UK-based booksellers. According to Nicole Vanderbilt, Managing Director of Bookshop.org, the company decided to bring forward their UK launch to support British independent bookshops in light of the considerable pressures created by the pandemic.
She said: “In just under four months of activity, we’ve generated over £1m profit for indies, helping them grow their online customer base at a time when they were not able to open their physical doors.”
Despite seeing her shop being directly affected by the tech giant, Giles still believes there’s hope for bookshops all around. She said: “Most people realise that what you do with your money is a political decision. Some people choose to support and buy from independent stores and not from supermarkets. Some people choose to support independent bookshops rather than buying from Amazon. It’s a little bit more complicated than just saying that Amazon is killing everything and everyone. “
And then there’s the revivalist perspective – the idea that Amazon and other online marketplaces will never surpass the experience of going to a bookshop in person, which is now allowed again as coronavirus restrictions ease. David Brett, the 53-years-old owner of The Word, an independent bookshop in New Cross, believes there’s nothing like browsing a bookshop.
He said: “Since we opened last month, we’ve done really well. When people come by the shop, they’ll see the books and they’ll buy them. The problem is, if you can’t come in and look at the books, there’s more incentive for people to look elsewhere online. If you know what you want to buy, you’ll just go on Amazon.”
“I sell lots of books to people who don’t realise they want the books. They’ll come in after one particular book and leave with three because they’ll see other books in here which they don’t do online.”
More information on these local bookshops can be accessed on: