Germany’s Book Market: The Börsenverein on 2020 and Early 2021 Sales

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

While online book sales have proved to be robust in Germany, city bookstores are challenged by urban areas described as ‘increasingly deserted.’

Consumers in Dusseldorf, June 27. Surveys for the new report show the German market’s young adults between ages 20 and 29 reporting that their reading activity increased by 32 percent in 2020. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Livinus

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

Rights Sales Abroad: 7,595 Titles
This morning (July 8) in Frankfurt, the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, Germany’s publishers and booksellers association, has given a news conference at Haus des Buches, Book House in Braubachstraße, titled “The Book Market in the Pandemic: An Interim Report.”

As Publishing Perspectives readers will recall, a similar news conference in July 2020 and a follow-up in January have faithfully outlined the impact of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic on the German book market. Today’s information is another in this series of sessions with various news media and was led by Alexander Skipis, general manager of the Börsenverein.

The topline messaging:

  • Consumers in Germany read more in the pandemic
  • The German book market was flat in 2020 at 0.1 percent
  • Online shopping has seen a significant upturn at 20.9 percent—accounting for some 25 percent of total sales in 2020
  • While physical bookstores still are the strongest channel, they show losses of 9 percent
  • The industry faces higher expenses and a large backlog after the first half of 2021, resulting in what’s described today as “a tense situation” in the book trade overall
  • The inner cities continue to lose vitality, leading the Börsenverein to call for joint efforts with politicians
  • The 2021 outlook remains uncertain, as the first half of the year shows a 22.9 percent shortfall in physical retail settings by comparison to 2019

That 22.9-percent shortfall in the first six months of this year has to do with extensive COVID-driven shutdowns in the spring. “Only in Berlin, Brandenburg, and Saxony-Anhalt were the bookstores open during this time,” the Börsenverein reports, “and depending on the region, ‘Click & Collect’ [at local bookstores] was not always allowed.” This contributed to the retail trade’s backlog of inventory between January and June.

When online sales and other channels are added in, the staff reports, the half-year balance looks better: Compared to the period from January to June 2019, sales in all channels are 3.7 percent behind.

Schmidt-Friderichs: ‘Interest in Books Is Unbroken’

Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, who heads the Börsenverein, told the press, “People’s interest in books is unbroken. Especially in times of crisis, people look for inspiration, well-founded and reliable information, and creative pastimes in books.

Karin Schmidt-Friderichs

“Over the past 16 months, bookstores and publishers have worked with great commitment and creativity to ensure that people continued to have access to books, professional advice, and lively literature. The book trade has expanded its digital offerings and was able to increase its competitiveness compared to large online groups. Many retailers have intensified the bond with their customers and are now actively trying to catch up to reduce the sales gap from this year’s shutdown.

“Publishers are optimistic that with face-to-face events such as Frankfurter Buchmesse possible again, important stages for new books will return and the public discussion about literature will become louder.”

Skipis: ‘Retail and Cultural Institutions’

Alexander Skipis, general manager of Germany’s Börsenverein, speaks to reporters at the July 8 news conference in Frankfurt. Image: From video, Börsenverein

Skipis, in his overview, said, “Business with books was comparatively good, despite major hurdles in the pandemic. Many bookstores were able to increase their online sales significantly, but these are expensive because of the high process costs. The bottom line is that many have a negative operating result, and that’s coupled with generally low margins in the industry.

“We’re therefore grateful to politicians, especially minister of state for culture Monika Grütters, that they have given the industry strong support so far and that they will continue to help the book trade in particular.”

“Bookstores are ‘third places’ par excellence. Spaces for social exchange, togetherness, and public discourse.”Alexander Skipis, Börsenverein

Not unlike the downturn for bookselling in the top-tier cities of China and other markets, however, the German marketplace saw distinct pullbacks in consumer activity in its urban hubs. The Börsenverein makes the point today that even before the onset of the contagion, the nation’s inner cities were “increasingly deserted” while some rural areas also tended “to lose their liveliness and diversity” during the height of the still ongoing pandemic.

“For a restart after the pandemic,” Skipis said, “a joint effort with the politicians is required. We need sustainable concepts to revitalize the inner cities. The book trade—with its unique combination of retail and cultural institutions, and its filigree network of more than 5,000 local bookshops—can play an important role here.”

He used a term from the urban planning industry and the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg, “third places,” to refer to community-building venues sought out by citizens between work and home: “Bookstores are ‘third places’ par excellence,” Skipis said. “Spaces for social exchange, togetherness, and public discourse.

“Here visitors can find inspiration, slowing down in a pleasant environment of openness. Together we can expand these spaces even further into cultural event locations that can develop further attraction and motivate people to come back to the city centers.

“It’s also essential for publishers,” Skipis said, “that politicians strengthen their framework conditions. In recent years, they’ve had to watch their rights being restricted more and more. With a view to the federal election in three months’ time, we therefore demand that politicians recognize the value of intellectual property and the work of publishers more strongly and promote their contribution to diversity and democracy.”

More Numbers: ‘400,000 Buyers Lost Last Year’

Estimated sales by booksellers at retail prices. Image: Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels

The Börsenverein has provided a round of statistics to members of the press today, and we’ll convey them to you here.

Book Usage

As was seen in so many world markets, reading itself became more commonplace during the pandemic year 2020, especially in times of spread-mitigation confinements.

  • 25 percent of readers in Germany reported reading books more often than before the pandemic, per a GfK survey made in January of this year
  • Increased reading was reported particularly among younger citizens
  • Among those aged 10 to 19, reading was reported to be up 34 percent in frequency
  • Among those aged 20 to 29, the reported increase was 32 percent

Book Buyers

The share of book buyers in the population, today’s information reveals, “has also remained stable despite the pandemic. It was 43 percent in the public book market in 2020 as it was in 2019.”

Today’s messaging also looks at the attrition of book buyers from the market. Some 400,000 buyers, the Börsenverein’s research shows, “were lost to the book market last year. This is the smallest decrease in the last 10 years, with the exception of 2018,” when slight increases were recorded.

Book Sales

  • Increased demand for books led to a stable outcome of €9.30 billion in 2020 book sales (US$11.1 billion), just over 2019’s €9.29 billion euros, and this despite weeks of store closings
  • The physical stores remained the largest sales channel for books with €3.90 billion (US$4.6 billion) and a share of 42.0 percent, nevertheless this return was 9 percent below that of 2019
  • Strong growth in online sales was heartening, and half of this is attributed to the e-commerce operations of bookstores, themselves
  • This online sales growth was 20.9 percent, from €1.86 to €2.24 billion (US$2.2 to 2.6 billion)

Average store prices of new releases (in euros) by subject group. Image: Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels

Online Sales

  • The share of sales of the Internet book trade in the overall market was 24.1 percent in 2020, up from 20 percent in 2019
  • The consumer book market (excluding school and specialist books) showed the local book trade making the most significant gains in online business: At 27.2 percent, the growth rate for bookshop’s online sales was almost four times higher than the growth rate of sales at (7.2 percent)

Ebooks and Audiobooks

  • The trend in a digital acceleration in formats was evident in the German market as in many others.
  • Sales of ebook downloads on the trade market (excluding school and specialist books) rose by 16.2 percent
  • In terms of share-of-market, ebooks rose from their traditional 5 percent to 5.9 percent
  • The market for audiobook downloads also grew significantly—by an impressive 24.5 percent
  • The number of flat-rate subscriptions sold for ebooks and audiobooks also recorded a significant increase of 28.4 percent

Product Groups

  • Children’s and YA titles were up by 4.7 percent, along with natural sciences, medicine, IT, technology
  • Sales of travel books collapsed by 26.1 percent
  • Sales of fiction were down slightly by 1.6 percent and nonfiction sales were similarly in a mild decline of 1.3 percent, by comparison to results in 2019

Title Output

First editions released by publishers fell from 70,395 (2019) to 69,180 (2020). That’s a decrease of 1.7 percent, which is slightly more than in previous years.

In fiction, which accounts for 20.1 percent of new publications overall, the decline was somewhat more pronounced at 4.0 percent.

Translation Rights

The proportion of translations in those first editions fell from 13.9 to 13.2 percent. A total of 9,164 titles from other languages ​​(as opposed to 2019’s 9,802) appeared on the German book market in 2020.

Rights sales abroad, with 7,595 titles, fell 1.9 percent; that’s is slightly more than in 2019 (1.2 percent down) and 2018 (0.2 percent down).

The two leading sectors for sales of German titles into international markets were both down more than the 1.9-percent average.

  • Children’s and YA translation rights sales of books from Germany were down 5.6 percent
  • Rights sales of adult fiction titles were down 5.1 percent

The figures on the shares and changes in sales of the product groups as well as the sales development in 2020 come from the Media Control retail panel. The buyer figures, and figures on media usage as well as the ebook and audiobook numbers are from the GfK Consumer Panel MediaScope book.

First-edition title releases in Germany in 2019 and 2020 by subject groups. Image: Börsenverein

More from Publishing Perspectives on the German book market is here and more on industry statistics is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing 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 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.