Total UK publication revenue hit a new record of £6.7bn in 2021, up 5% from 2020. This growth comes despite – or perhaps because of – the pandemic, with the social media platform TikTok emerging as a surprise driving force for not just new books, but waitlisted purchases.
As Covid lockdowns forced bookstores to close and subsequent supply chain problems caused delays and headaches for publishers, the appetite for reading soared, with sales up 5% year-over-year for both print and digital books while audiobooks continued the “stellar” performance of recent years with a 14% increase in sales, according to a report by the Publishers Association.
And TikTok is helping younger readers, in particular, discover books through what Publishers Association chief executive Stephen Lotinga called “organic interactions” rather than publisher-led promotion.
He said: “A big part of what’s being driven by TikTok is in print sales, and we’re finding that many young adults are discovering books they love, sharing them with friends, and generating sales and new interest, and that can only be a good thing.”
He added that “BookTokkers” often avoided the latest releases and instead rediscovered books that are sometimes decades old. An extreme example was how, just before Christmas, an unexpected hit was Cain’s Jawbone, written as a murder mystery puzzle by Edward Powys Mathers under the pseudonym Torquemada in 1934. It became popular when TikTok user Sarah Scannell posted a series of videos charting their quest to solve the puzzle.
A more recent book, We Were Liars by E Lockhart, was published in 2014 but took on new life when it was rediscovered on the social media app last year, giving it, Lotinga said, “four or five times” the sales it had. had in 2020.
He added that TikTok users were replicating the time-honored sales method that bookstore employees often employ — suggesting books to shoppers they might like. And this is an area that the pandemic has hit hard, leaving online retailers, chief among them Amazon, to capitalize on.
A sale isn’t just for the publishing industry, Lotinga said. He expressed unease about Amazon’s dominance in retailing. “While the industry has fared well during the pandemic, we have seen greater consolidation of sales into a single digital marketplace platform,” he said. “Such a lack of competition cannot benefit readers in the long run, which is why it is more important than ever that the government lives up to its commitment to introduce new powers to properly regulate tech giants in the Queen’s next speech.”
Two-thirds of books purchased from brick-and-mortar bookstores are “unplanned purchases” – purchased because they caught the shopper’s attention. On the other hand, the same proportion of online book sales are planned – shoppers buy exactly what they’re looking for and don’t look for other things while they’re there.
Of the £6.7bn sales of all books in 2021, £2.7bn were UK domestic sales – an increase of 7% – and export sales of £3.8bn, an increase of two%.
Print increased 5%, digital the same and consumer books increased 4%. Fiction sales increased by 7%, accounting for £733 million of sales, and children’s fiction increased in the same proportion.
It was feared that audiobook sales would be affected during the pandemic as people were not commuting on public transport or driving, but audio downloads rose by 14% to £151m.
Lotinga said: “The interesting thing is that audio sales don’t cannibalize other parts of the industry, it doesn’t mean one less book being sold. Audio is getting people to read, and a lot of that is because it’s so easy to consume audiobooks now, especially with smart speakers.”
The association is calling on the government to eliminate VAT on audiobooks, as it did on e-books in 2020, saying it has long been the claimed policy of political parties not to tax reading. Lotinga said: “Other countries in Europe have managed to do this and we urge the government to do the same. Over 300,000 people in the UK are registered as visually impaired and access to audiobooks is not a luxury, it’s how many people fundamentally consume literature.”