Coronavirus Impact: German Bookstores’ April Downturn

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

In April, German bookstores saw hardcover and first-edition paperbacks sales drop by 47.3 percent, according to ‘Börsenblatt’ magazine. Now, stores are reopening and trying to return to profitability.

A May 3 shot on Munich’s Neuhauser Strasse’s pedestrian zone — a retail district waiting for the return of shoppers. Image – iStockphoto: Christian Ader

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Watching Germany’s Bookstores Reopen
Amid news today (May 15) that Germany’s economy shrank 2.2 percent in the first quarter, a helpful weekly series from our colleagues at German publishing trade magazine Börsenblatt is starting to provide some insights into how the reopening of physical bookstores in Germany—one of our major reading cultures—is looking in the early stages. To create a weekly look at the stores’ progress, Börsenblatt is working with Media Control and has flagged their information, provided in English, to Publishing Perspectives’ attention.

In the first graphic here, from the May 7 edition, you see April and January to April of this year.

Image: Börsenblatt, Media Control

What we see above in the first week’s charting of this new series is a kind of baseline for April. Using the graphic index at the top, you can spot the color coding for formats (left) and product categories (right).

The discussion, provided by Börsenblatt‘s deputy editor-in-chief Christina Schulte, tells us that “In April, turnover in hardcover and first-edition paperbacks at retail bookshops fell by 47.3 percent, with paperbacks dropping by 44.2 percent. In terms of individual product categories, travel recorded the highest drop at almost 80 percent, followed by a 51 percent hit for nonfiction books. A glance at overall unit sales shows a decline of 51.1 percent, while prices rose by an impressive 8.5 percent.”

The team is making weekly comparisons between the market’s action in bookstores, per se, and in all distribution channels, and they make an interesting point that some of the non-bookstore sales in “essential service” such as food stores and drugstores could have been expected to help offset lost sales in shuttered physical bookstores. While there was a pickup in this regard around Easter, Schulte says, it wasn’t sustained as a reliable channel.

You’ll find week-specific charting and an “industry monitor” fever chart available as part of what Börsenblatt and Media Control are doing in that first of the weekly reports.

The view that Schulte and her associates then provide of Week 19 (May 3 to 10), published here on May 14, is, as Schulte writes, a picture of booksellers “trying to return to normal levels of turnover” but hobbled by the major impact of losses in the pandemic.

The following chart, looking at the year’s weeks 1 to 18 and comparing them to weeks 1 to 19. In their discussion, the team writes, “A glance at the figures across all distribution channels in the period from week 1 to week 19 shows that the difference in turnover compared to the same period in 2019 is currently at minus 13.6 percent.

“This means that booksellers were able to reduce their shortfall—which was at minus 14.4 percent in weeks 1 to 18—by 0.8 percentage points.”

Image: Börsenblatt, Media Control

With physical stores working to overcome their losses, Börsenblatt‘s staff and Media Control write, “we see the stores reducing their gap in sales year-over-year to -19.6 percent.

“In a comparison of weeks 1 to 18 and weeks 1 to 19 at brick-and-mortar stores, the category of fiction performed above average, closing the gap by 1.1 percentage points, while children’s books and young adult fiction gained 0.9 percentage points. Not all product categories were able to improve their numbers, however, with travel books once again bringing up the rear, increasing their shortfall by 0.9 percentage points to a total of minus 38.2 percent.”

And in another interesting note, the team sees a “tiny increase” in pricing “from 2.7 percent to 2.8 percent” year-over-year in weeks 1 to 19 as opposed to weeks 1 to 18.

And there’s much more to be gleaned from the charting that Börsenblatt is doing on the road to bookstores’ recovery. Again, the latest article in this series is here.

German Bookstores Reopen in Tough Economic Conditions

BBC News is characterizing the German’s economic downturn as “the biggest quarterly fall since 2009, when the country was engulfed in the global financial crisis.

Deutsche Welle’s latest update, acknowledging that the market’s economy now is tipping into recession, includes the fact that more German states are allowing restricted reopenings for bars and restaurants, and the federal interior ministry is planning to loosen restrictions for travel from countries in the Schengen zone of Europe and the UK–with quarantine requirements depending on where the travel originates.

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal on Thursday (May 14) acknowledged that the viral reproduction rate, called the R0, has moved from 0.8 to as high as 1.1 last weekend during staged reopening efforts. “That means that each person infected with the virus transmits it on average to 1.1 other people—exponential growth.” But despite Angela Merkel’s guidance that an R0 of 1 or higher could cause the government to pause reopenings, the country is moving cautiously onward.

The business-friendly, virus-weary Journal’s editorial board wants to use this as a prod to other markets, chief among them the United States, to get on with it. “If Germany learns to live with a higher reproduction rate, that will be an important lesson for other politicians: Give voters more credit. Leaders from UK prime minister Boris Johnson to New York governor Andrew Cuomo continue to promise reproduction rates below 1 as they reopen their economies. Perhaps the public realizes this is unrealistic and won’t punish politicians who take some virus risks for the sake of restoring voters’ livelihoods.”

At this writing, the 2:32 a.m. ET update (0632 GMT) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center shows Germany as fifth in the world for coronavirus COVID-19 caseloads, with 174,478 cases and 7,884 deaths on a population of 83 million.

An April 21 shot in Munich. Image – iStockphoto: Christian Ader

More from Publishing Perspective on the German market is here. And more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.