Coronavirus Worklife in Europe’s Book Markets: An Early Assessment of the Damage

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Partial outlines of the novel coronavirus’ impact take shape in the input gathered from many markets by the Federation of European Publishers for a newly released paper.

In Brussels on June 13, as hospitality sector businesses were reopened. Image – iStockphoto: Alexandros Michailidis

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

‘An Interim Stocktaking Exercise’
As Rudy Vanschoonbeek, the president of the Federation of European Publishers (FEP) puts it, “Then everything froze, first in Italy, then in Spain, and a few days later the whole of Europe, or almost, went into lockdown.”

His introduction to a new report from the Brussels-based organization of publishers’ associations also explains, and rightly, that he and his colleagues know, “The crisis is not behind us, by far.” This is something that we, too, like all responsible and far-flung news media, continue to try to convey  to readers, listeners, viewers: Keep your mask on.

“This is an interim stocktaking exercise,” Vanschoonbeek says, “which we expect to renew at the end of the year. We hope that in the meanwhile trade will have picked up and that we will be bearers of better news.”

And the presentation, as a 15-page PDF, also bears the unavoidable marks of the confusion that has wracked each nation’s and the international community’s understanding of the coronavirus COVID19 pandemic and its effects. The material is anecdotal, market to market, an apple here, an orange there, all worth contemplating but not conducive to sound conclusions yet. Because comprehensively organized research isn’t yet available on the effects of this storm still blowing, it’s produced as a narrative rather than being parsed by data points.

This is not meant as a criticism of the federation’s effort—far from it—but as a reflection on how chaos continues to batter the world medical emergency of 2020: read the federation’s report as you’d peruse a well-curated gallery exhibition—for snapshots of a crisis-in-progress, not as an all-encompassing account.

Consequences of the COVID-19 Crisis on the Book Market is a part of the material that the federation has used in arguing for cultural subsidies at the European Union’s potentially pivotal Special Council recovery-measure meetings.

As the report from Brussels has arrived in journalists’ inboxes, the world has—strangely quietly—passed the 15-million mark in terms of universal known caseload. Jane Wardell and Gayle Issa at Reuters remind us in their report updated this morning (July 23), “After the first COVID-19 case was reported in Wuhan, China, in early January, it took about 15 weeks to reach 2 million cases. By contrast, it took just eight days to climb above 15 million from the 13 million reached on July 13.”

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center‘s death toll in its 5:34 a.m. ET update (0934 GMT) comprises 623,863 fatalities.

In Europe, the subject of the federation’s report, the total cases being certified by the Worldometer system, stand at 2.7 million. European fatalities to date: 199,749.

The magnitude of these numbers and our inability to be able to see their end, of course, doesn’t stop our trying to assess and make sense of what’s happening.

Only occasionally does this report wander into the unnecessary and unknowable. For example, one market’s association has contributed the notion that “33 percent of people worldwide read more books and/or listened to more audiobooks while at home during the crisis.” But no one has such “worldwide” data. Worldwide means everywhere. No single hard-hit market’s “research department,” as the credit reads, has been able to provide such a universal data point on reading. Not even caseload and death figures are believed to be showing us the actual depths of the nightmare. And this kind of hyperbole does the book business no favors. The publishing industry owes itself and its supporters strict truth as it best can be detected. The facts are bad enough. As we say, this kind of thing is happily rare in the document at hand.

In our look at the federation report, we’ll bullet out for you key points from the narrative, so in the same way the new report can’t be comprehensive, neither can be our account of it. All of these points are provided by the Federation of European Publishers in the report, they are not independently verified by Publishing Perspectives. We are still seeing this tragedy by candlelight.

Bookstores at the Center

Image: Federation of European Publishers

The federation report sees the pandemic’s sinkholes opening first and most persistently under bookstores. These retailers’ experiences outline the crisis most tangibly. A store with its “Closed By COVID-19” sign is a far more visible effect than a publisher’s move of a book’s release date from one point on the calendar to another.

“The impact on sales was immediate and dramatic,” the report reads. “Brick-and-mortar bookstores are everywhere the main channel for book sales, and the one most used by readers. In Italy, for example, they generate 66 percent of sales and are used by 74 percent of readers. The chilling effect on demand was unmistakable: sales in bookstores dropped anywhere between 75 percent and 95 percent in most countries where a lockdown was in place.”

Some metrics included in the report for March:

  • Retail sales in Austria in the second half of March were down 74 percent
  • Sales were down 50 percent in Belgium for the whole month of March
  • In France, level 1 bookshops (larger stores and culture superstores) also had a reduction of sales of more than 50 percent for the whole of March
  • In Germany, bookstores lost more than 30 percent of sales
  • By the end of March, for the lockdown period, booksellers’ sales in Italy had shrunk 75 percent, with a loss of €20 million (US$23.1 million)
  • Around the same time, sales were down 78 percent in Portugal, 80 percent in Spain, and 85 percent in Romania

“Lockdowns were in place in most cases around mid-March, so figures for the whole month include two weeks of regular activity, although often already reduced.”

Referencing title postponement or cancellation:

  • By mid-May, Bulgarian publishers expected to publish 500 to 1,000 fewer titles than planned in 2020, i.e. a drop of 10 to 20 percent, and 87 percent of them postponed all titles during the lockdown
  • In the second half of March alone, French publishers postponed publication of 5,236 new titles and new editions, and by mid-May they planned to postpone on average 18 percent of titles scheduled for 2020 altogether
  • Title production dropped 75 percent by end March in Greece, and the estimate for the whole year is a reduction of around one fifth of the total
  • Czech publishers postponed some 15 percent of their titles so far
  • Most strikingly, in Italy by the end of March, some 23,200 titles had been cancelled or postponed—about one-third for the yearly production—corresponding to 48.9 million fewer copies printed, and during the whole lockdown period title production was down two-thirds

April, of course, saw the darkest days on the European timeline of the pathogen’s outbreaks. “When April came,” the report reads, “the book sector had virtually ground to a halt in many countries, and as lockdowns continued, the impact was felt at full force.”

The Spring’s Deepening Effects

At a labor department office in Sofia, April 8. Image – iStockphoto: Cylonphoto

Some points on the effects in April:

  • Sales in level 1 bookshops in France were down 96 percent, 89 percent for level 2 bookshops (smaller local bookstores)
  • Retail bookselling lost 47 percent in value in Germany
  • In Italy, by mid-month, sales in bookstores were down 85 percent on average since the beginning of the lockdown
  • In Spain and Slovenia, sales were down up to 90 percent
  • By early May, booksellers in the UK were making on average 18 percent of their normal sales, and publishers experienced a reduction of 60 percent in turnover–90 percent for the small ones relying mostly on bookshop sales
  • French-speaking booksellers in Belgium lost 95 percent of turnover

Readers of the report will find it interesting to read of markets in which bookshops were not forced to close. “The health crisis still had an impact on the book market there, too,” we read, “as safety measures of some kind or other and the understandable reluctance of many people to go into shops took their toll on sales.”

Anecdotes from markets less forced into shutdown:

  • Physical sales were down 30 percent in Denmark in March and April, with publishers having postponed by the end of June almost one quarter of new publications
  • In Estonia, sales were also down 30 percent during the worst of the crisis–from March to May–and title production was down 35 percent
  • In the same period, sales in bookstores were down 40 percent in Finland, with individual stores ranging from -20 percent to -90 percent
  • In Latvia, where bookstores were closed on weekends, in April and May sales were down 42.3 percent, and 45 percent fewer titles were published
  • In Norway, by mid-April, physical sales from publishers to bookstores were down 59 percent, and 80 percent of publishers were postponing or cancelling new titles, and sales were down 29 percent overall in April
  • In Sweden, between mid-March and mid-April, sales in physical bookstores were down 36.3 percent
  • In the Netherlands, most bookshops remained open or reopened shortly after the crisis outbreak, but physical sales were affected there, too, being 30-percent down in the first two months of the emergency

Some views of the impact by May:

  • In Austria, turnover from January to May was down 12.7 percent
  • Publishers’ sales had lost 15 percent in the Czech Republic
  • Book sales were down 22.1 percent in France, 11.9 percent in Germany where turnover during lockdown shrank 50 percent (70 percent in brick and mortar bookstores)
  • Bookstore sales had lost 38 percent in Spain
  • Publishers’ turnover during lockdown was down 40 percent in Hungary
  • Sales of books in Ireland were 30-percent down, but 70 percent for Irish-published books
  • In Italy, trade book sales were €135 million short between January and the beginning of May
  • Publishers in Luxembourg had lost up to 90 percent of sales between April and May
  • By May’s end, Romanian publishers’ turnover had contracted 60 percent since lockdown
Further Anecdotes Included

Image: Federation of European Publishers

The document goes on to recount such features markets, “the lucky ones,” in which heavy value-chain damage seems to have been avoided. The Netherlands appears to have been fortunate in this regard.

There also are looks, as available, at early efforts to estimate eventual damage levels for the year; questions of how normally retail can be operated amid reopenings, how much shift may have occurred—and remain in effect—to digital formats and online retail points; what impact postponed and cancelled titles may have; the unknown effects to come of damaged economies and discretionary income; educational publishing’s role; and more.

“The only thing certain is that the book sector has suffered a serious blow from the COVID-19 pandemic, of which the precise dimensions are not yet clear,” the report’s authors write, and that’s correct, not least because—we’ll say it again—this thing is not over.

And it will be interesting to follow up with the federation at year’s end to see what sort of updated look at the European arena is being understood at that point.

Again, the PDF can be downloaded, free of charge, here.

A July 16 shot in Izola, Slovenia. Image – iStockphoto: Nina Belova

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Federation of European Publishers is here, more from us on Europe is here, and more 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 is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he 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.