The European and International Booksellers Federation Report on 2020

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The European and International Booksellers Federation highlights comparative points of publishing markets’ challenges in 2020.

Open-air bookselling at this year’s masked Festival Sant Jordi in Palma de Mallorca on the Balearic Islands, April 23. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Neme Jimenez

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

‘Not All Growth Is Equitable’
At many points, news coverage of the impact on bookselling in world publishing can seem episodic. We’ve had industry statistics from national market reports from 2020. A detailed report from Germany’s Börsenverein was released on Thursday, for example. But a higher view has been harder to come by.

Today (July 12), in a report from the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF), which represents in its membership more than 25,000 booksellers.

While we know that during the course of the still-ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the situation on the ground in one country has not been the same as in another, the kind of aggregate understanding that EIBF can produce by surveying its federation is something we’d like to see for more regions in the world. Great trends in the pandemic’s effects are well understood and have been probably overly emphasized in the course of so many digital programs produced this year, particularly during June and May, when the EIBF report was all but missed amid the crush of online events.

  • We know of the “digital acceleration” that caused many if not most markets to see some level of uptake in consumer interest and activity in ebooks, audiobooks, and—most pertinently for publishers—e-commerce for both print and digital products.
  • We also know very well about digital schoolteaching trends and how they impacted so differently our various markets in which educational publishing and Internet infrastructure were able (or not) to capitalize on systems and preparedness to make a jump to at-home education.
  • And of course we know that much of publishing experienced a kind of “flight from the office” for safety, to a work-from-home format for many that proved finally to some executives that remote working has many benefits for publishing and showed others, it seems, that it’s still very important to have bodies in seats in a physical office setting. Only in the coming autumn will we begin to see some of the biggest publishers experiment with how they staff up again in their corporate centers, as is exemplified in the Hachette Book Group’s announced program.

Booksellers clearly were on the front lines and among the hardest hit in the book business, trying to keep physical companies going in a locked-down world—some experiencing loss and layoffs, others finding that they actually did better through avid promotion and implementation of “click and collect” and delivery programs.

The value of the EIBF report, signed off on by co-presidents Fabian Paagman and Jean-Luc Treutenaere, recalls the value of the International Publishers Association‘s (IPA) early effort to assess the damage in its From Response to Recovery report of late November last year.

The range of the report actually goes beyond the European Union, too, with countries reporting on their 2020 experiences being Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Some quick examples of the kind of higher-view numbers the federation can work with at its level, followed by a graphic with more detail:

  • In 2020, 88 percent of booksellers in those markets said they had to close at least once during lockdown
  • In a third of those countries, governments provided dedicated subsidies for assistance to booksellers
  • In all the queried countries, governments provided subsidies/stimulus packages, to try to boost economic outlooks overall
  • In more than half the countries featured in the study, total book sales for 2020 decreased by comparison to 2019

Image: EIBF

In the phrasing of the federation, “not all growth is equitable,” and stark differences between markets have become familiar now. As you can see in the next graphic, bookselling trends pointed upward in 2020 in the States, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Brazil, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which was not the case in many other markets.

Varying Impact Between Markets

In commentary, the EIBF study says, “While the bookselling sector has been hit hard during the pandemic, some national markets saw growth in books sales in the past year.

“However, it’s important to distinguish the value of total sales numbers across all channels and the value of book sales numbers in brick-and-mortar bookshops. The exact breakdown is often hard to come by, but our members have seen knock-off effects of this.”

And by example, a quote from the Swedish Booksellers Association advises, “While we have seen the overall market growing by 8.7 percent in 2020, this mainly benefitted digital channels and platforms. Book sales in the physical bookstore channel declined by 19 percent in that same period, despite bookshops being open this whole year.”

Certainly in markets now showing persistent gains in e-commerce over physical, this may be more evidence to suggest that a lasting shift was put into motion during pandemic spread-mitigation efforts, a shift toward digital retail. In other areas in which either the consumer base or the bookselling businesses weren’t so fluent in digital retail and reading, the centricity of physical bookselling may remain firm and revive strongly as vaccination efforts expand.

From the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers, we read, “Overall, the total inter-annual decrease of sales in bookselling industry amounts to approx. 10 percent. However, small bookshops without an online shop, as well as bookshop chains operating their shops in shopping malls, experienced a decrease amounting to approximately 30 percent.

The logical outcome of the crisis, therefore, was a substantive change in the structure of the book sales in favor of online shops.”

In-Market Forces at Work

Book shopping in Belgrade, December 21, 2020. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Balkans Cat

The report includes helpful observations on elements of impact that were not caused as much by the direct assault of the contagion as by how businesses, consumers, and governments responded.

Jean Luc Treutenaere

Some markets reported decreased physical bookselling even without lockdowns. These were places in which populations simply stayed home, safely out of unnecessary public encounters amid high viral loads, thus curtailing foot traffic in bookstores.

In many markets, government subsidy was important, and the Börsenverein is quoted on this, talking about the Neustart Kulture program from the ministry of culture in Germany, which is assisting Frankfurter Buchmesse in creating a physical trade show in October. That program has included “€10 million (US$11,869) to bookshops for projects aimed at improving or establishing Web shops and/or social media and other digital activities, including training. Only bookshops with a turnover of less than €10 million per year are eligible. Applicants can receive between €1,500 and €7,500 based on their project pitch (US$1,780 and $8,901).”

Fabian Paagman

And one factor being heard more clearly in recent presentations in the world industry has to do with bookstores’ physical settings in their communities. In January, our colleagues at Beijing OpenBook were reporting on a phenomenon of big stores in China’s biggest cities having the biggest struggles on their hands. “One early observation during 2020 from OpenBook,” we wrote then in Publishing Perspectives‘ report, “was that the ‘super-size’ bookstores in the sprawling Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities of China were experiencing the most daunting downturns in business under pandemic pressure.”

And just last week, Germany reported a very similar trend, seeing urban hubs–inner cities in which footfall was lessening even before the pathogen’s impact–beginning to punish city-center bookstores as spread-mitigation efforts worked against consumer movement there.

At the end of the day, the world publishing industry’s understanding of the impact of the pandemic still is coming into focus–as is the pandemic itself, particularly in light of new challenges from the special transmissibility of the B.1.617.2 or “delta” variant. As the evolution of the public health emergency’s presence goes on, the kind of comparative points the European and International Booksellers Federation is able to bring to light are extremely helpful.

You’ll find a PDF of the 12-page report from BIEF here.

More from Publishing Perspectives on bookstores and bookselling is here, and more from us on the European and International Booksellers Federation is here. Publishing Perspectives its the international media partner of the International Publishers Association.

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.