Italy’s First Quarter Report: Book Sales Up 26.6 Percent

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Data now being collected for a third year shows a distinct migration of Italian book sales from physical bookstores to online retail.

In the Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, on March 15. Image – iStockphoto: Claudio Caridi

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

More Book Sales, More of Them Online
Following the NPD BookScan report we covered on Monday (April 19) on the US market’s first quarter of 2021, we have today (April 20) news of a strong Q1 showing in the Italian book market, as well.

“Consolidating a trend that began in the second half of 2020,” we’re told by Ricardo Franco Levi at the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE), “Italian book publishing has continued to grow in the first three months of 2021.”

Based on cover prices of print in the trade business—in data drawn from bookstores, online retailers, and large-scale distribution—Italy’s sales grew by 26.6 percent in value and 26.7 percent in units sold compared to the same period of the previous year.

“We are facing an important increase,” Levi says, “accompanied by the growth in reading, as documented in the Cepell white paper,” a report that indicates that in 2020 61 percent of Italians in the 15 to 74 year age group are readers, against 58 percent in 2019.

Ricardo Franco Levi

“These data,” Levi says, “confirm support for the policies backed by the publishing sector’s entire book supply chain, including not only AIE but also the Italian Librarians Association and Booksellers Association, and implemented in 2020 by the government and parliament.

“Some of the high points of this have been demand for the 18App, the Family Card, the financing of purchases by libraries in local bookstores—all of these are measures that we’ve asked for and have seen confirmed and stabilized.”

As we’ve covered closely for our international readers, Italy’s publishing industry has been one of the most strategic and insistent in the world. As the country became the first European epicenter for the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the Italian publishers’ association under Levi’s direction was adamant in its dealings with Rome, making the case that Italy’s cultural treasures, including literature, are its lifeline to economic recovery and that the protection and promotion of the entire cultural sector had to be a priority.

The strategy worked, to the point that late last month, the association had reached a point of making permanent some of the new partnerships it made for the book business during its development of pandemic survival tactics.

AIE’s research group today sees the 18App as, effectively, the poster child for cultural-program support in Italy. This is the program that provides each citizen turning 18 several hundred euros to spend on cultural products and events, including book purchases. In January and February, 18-year-olds used 80 percent of their allocated funding for the app on buying printed books, amounting to a total €75 million euros (US$90.4 million). Reports indicate that 91 percent of those purchases were made through Internet retail outlets.

The Shift to Online Retail

At the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, March 31, during lockdown. Image – iStockphoto: Federico Neri

Among trends the association is tracking, the move from physical to Internet retail is among the most compelling. It should be noted that even during Q1 2021, Italians in some parts of the country were struggling with coronavirus outbreaks and various spread-mitigation measures. It’s unclear at this point how much effect on physical retail may be based in the COVID-19 crisis.

But in terms of that 18App and the big load of expenditures made on books in January and February, 91 percent of those purchases were made through Internet retail outlets. And overall in the Italian market, the publishers are seeing the third year of a distinct transition:

  • Physical channels—bookstores and other large retail centers—continue to slide, having gone from 73 percent in 2019 to 57 percent at the end of 2020 and 55 percent in March of this year
  • Online bookstores, which accounted for 27 percent of the trade in 2019 and 43 percent in 2020, hit 45 percent in the first quarter of this year
  • Even independent bookstores, which are most prevalent in the suburbs and small towns, are on a decline, as well, moving from 22 percent at the end of 2019 to 18 percent at the end of 2020 and dropping again to 16 percent at the end of March
  • Chain bookstores, generally challenged by being located mainly in city centers, stations, airports, and shopping centers, went from 44 percent of sales in 2019 to 33 percent in 2020 and saw a slight uptick to 34 percent in the first three months of this year

Large-scale distribution went from 7 percent in 2019 to 6 percent in 2020 and 5 percent in the first quarter of 2021.

The share of small- and medium-sized publishers, driven by online commerce, has grown steadily over the years, from 39.5 percent in 2011 to 47.5 percent in 2019, and 50.9 percent in 2020, reaching 54, 1 percent in Q1 2021.

The Coronavirus in Italy

At this writing, the 08:10 a.m. ET (1210 GMT) update of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center sees 3,878,994 cases in Italy’s population of 60 million, with 117,243 fatalities.

These numbers place Italy at eighth in the world for caseload and sixth in the world for deaths.

Not least because of Europe’s difficulty in ramping up vaccinations—as well as the on-again, off-again struggles around the AstraZeneca vaccine—Reuters and the Financial Times have reported that Rome is looking at producing mRNA vaccines, having held talks with the US company Moderna, Switzerland’s Novartis, and the Italian-based ReiThera.

The latest COVID spread-mitigation efforts, which locked down parts of Italy during the Easter holidays, are expected to be lifted on Monday (April 26), according to reports from the Voice of America.

The Lenno ferry terminal without tourists. Lake Como on April 4. Image – iStockphoto: Federico Fermeglia


More from Publishing Perspectives on Italy and its book publishing industry is here.

And more from us on the coronavirus pandemic is here.

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 2019 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 also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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