European Federation’s 2021 ‘Global Bookselling Report’: Markets Bearing Up

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The European and International Booksellers Federation’s report sees growth trends of between 5 and 15 percent.

Here’s Ireland’s Kilkenny Book Centre on High Street in a photo from April 20. Ireland’s booksellers are among those participating in the new bookselling report from the European and International Booksellers Federation. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Shawn Williams

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

A Big Emphasis for Many on the ‘Digital Presence’
Carrying out its research in April, the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF) based in Brussels has issued its 2022 Global Bookselling Markets report for 2021, “Exploring the Current Trends Shaping the Industry.”

The report is particularly of interest because since the start of 2020 and the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, of course, many booksellers have undertaken what the federation rightly refers to as “a complete reinvention of their business models, often having to incorporate practices not associated with their traditional core business.”

An example of this, of course, may lie in an independent bookshop in France that quickly ramped up its online presence to allow for “click and collect” e-commerce sales in which the customer would buy a title on the store’s site and pick it up at the curb.

But even such a seemingly upbeat example can raise red flags for some. In their introduction, CEO Fabian Paagman and Jean-Luc Treutenaere, president of the Syndicat des distributeurs de loisirs culturels, write well to the various issues being carefully watched by booksellers in so many parts of the world: “As we try to understand the current trends shaping the global bookselling sector, we have to consider the ones that are gaining traction due to pandemic restrictions, such as lower footfalls in the shops, primarily digital audience groups, and overreliance on online sales channels, among others.”

And the report opens with a cautionary note. When the overall numbers are considered across all sales channels, “We see that the majority of analyzed markets saw increased sales by 5 percent in the past year,” the report reads, a figure that increases to 15 percent or more in a third of the markets examined. The difficulty is in the fact that markets have not rebounded evenly, just as they didn’t experience the most restrictive spread-mitigation efforts evenly and at the same times. Lockdowns were far more prevalent and severe in some markets than in others.

The key concern, then: “Despite overall market growth, physical sales in bookshops continue to lag behind the digital sales channels in many countries. This was further exacerbated by national lockdown measures in the first half of 2021.”

And at the same time–perhaps logically if ironically–this is prompting the key over-arching idea to be, it seems, to become more efficiently operable, present, and effective in the digital space. At the same time the report talks of a need to re-establish in-store physical occasions, “a pipeline of events,” disrupted during the still-ongoing pandemic, it also finds digital progress to be a major concern and goal in many markets being heard from here.

Image: European and International Booksellers Federation

Three Areas for Development

The federation is pointing to three areas for developmental focus in 2022, not surprisingly with that digital emphasis right on top:

  • “Upscaling digital presence and optimizing online sales channels
  • “Reviewing the supply chain, specifically around paper and shipping logistics
  • “Preparing for limited customer purchasing power”

It’s interesting to read these lines for more depth on what the federation is looking at in regard to those three focal areas, not least because there’s a rather sudden entry in the discussion about audiobooks and an “exponential growth” of streaming channels coming into view:

“Globally, we saw a significant increase in online sales,” the report  with a lot of booksellers developing their own online shops to compete with the internet giants. Many national booksellers’ associations identified having a physical presence, while also enabling online sales, as a winning combination for bookshops to ensure their growth. “Online strategy was identified as crucial for the increase in sales across the book markets worldwide.

“In addition to the expansion of the digital sales channels, streaming services saw the biggest jump in market share in the past year. Even in countries where streaming services had little to no presence before the pandemic, book markets are now seeing an exponential growth of audiobook streaming channels.”

Here, then, are several highlights of some of the analysis to be studied here by publishing professionals in many markets of the world industry. In many cases, points are delivered directly from national booksellers’ associations and thus localized for comparative evaluation.

Image: European and International Booksellers Federation

Specific Highlights from Booksellers’ Associations
  • Lockdowns weren’t required for booksellers to feel the pinch. From the Swedish Booksellers Association we read, “We never had a complete lockdown in Sweden, but people were asked to avoid stores and shopping centers, which had a negative impact on book sales during the pandemic. When restrictions were lifted, customers returned.”
  • Children’s books’ sales levels showed continued to show strength in some markets in 2021. From Germany’s Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels: “Books for children and young adults continued to record large increases during the pandemic: titles for this young target group brought in 9% more sales last year than in 2019. Fiction (+4 percent) and non-fiction (+2 percent) also gained ground compared to pre-pandemic levels. A large sales gap still exists for travel literature (-26 percent).”
  • That “scaled up digital presence,” as the federation describes it, is a feature of most if not all the regions reporting into this survey, with the Portuguese Publishers and Booksellers Association reporting that audiobooks are “starting to be a small trend” there, and the Booksellers Association of New Zealand reporting, “Our main priorities going forward include supporting digital competitiveness for indies against international retailers and local chains, sourcing an alternative audiobook platform that is not owned by a global superpower and that supports the independent sector, as well as improving digital infrastructure for the association to secure revenue streams to support members.”
  • More on digital, from the Dutch Booksellers Association: “In the Netherlands, online sales channels grew by 20 percent, while physical bookshops saw a decline in sales by 7 percent. For the first time ever, in 2021 more books were sold by e-commerce channels than by physical shops, with e-commerce gaining 6 percent of market share year-on-year in 2021.”
  • And more on digital, from the Norwegian Booksellers Association: “Digital channels gained the most and physical lost the most. But solutions like click and collect included both digital and physical channels, and were very important during the pandemic.”
  • And even more on digital, from the Latvian Booksellers Association: “Winners were bookshops with improved online stores, with wide book assortment online and quicker and wider delivery options for customers, and physical shops which, after restriction measures were eased, were ready to meet their customers and deliver higher quality service than before.”

While there are more inputs to peruse, there’s an interesting coda here, as well, relative to the climate crisis.

At the very end of the report, the federation writes, “To ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry, sector professionals have to be aware of one looming challenge: climate change. From acting as an educational space for customers to adopting practical approaches to lower their carbon footprint, booksellers have a role to play in advancing the climate agenda.”

This report, with its combination of high-level and anecdotal, is interesting to read as a wide-angle snapshot of our international bookstores’ challenges in a most unusual time in industry history.

You can read the full 12-page report as a PDF here.

National booksellers’ associations from 18 nations responded with input for 2021, meaning that this report’s data was gathered from:

  • Australia
  • Denmark (Faroe Islands)
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Luxembourg
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Portugal,
  • Romania
  • Russia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland

More on bookstores and bookselling is here, more on the European and International Booksellers Federation is here, more on digital publishing 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.