Total UK publishing revenue hit a new high of £6.7bn in 2021, up 5% from 2020. This growth comes despite – or perhaps because of – the pandemic, social media platform TikTok emerging as a surprise driving force for not just new books, but backlist purchases.
As the Covid shutdowns forced bookstores to close and the resulting supply chain issues caused delays and headaches for publishers, the appetite for reading soared, with sales up 5% YoY for print and digital books, while audiobooks continued their “stellar” performance. in recent years with a 14% increase in sales, according to a report by the Publishers Association.
And TikTok is helping young readers in particular discover books through what Publishers Association chief executive Stephen Lotinga called “organic interactions” rather than publisher-led promotion.
He said: “A lot of what’s generated by TikTok is about print sales, and we’re seeing many young adults discovering books they love, sharing them with friends, and driving sales and a new interest, and that cannot be a good thing.”
He added that “BookTokkers” often avoid the latest releases and instead rediscover 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 by Edward Powys Mathers under the pen name Torquemada in 1934. It became popular when TikTok user Sarah Scannell released a series of videos chronicling his quest to solve the puzzle.
A more recent book, We Were Liars by E Lockhart, was published in 2014 but found 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 in 2020.
He added that TikTok users were replicating the age-old method of selling bookstore staff have often employed – suggesting books to buyers they might like. And it’s an area the pandemic has hit hard, leaving online retailers, led by Amazon, to capitalize.
A sale isn’t just about the publishing industry, Lotinga said. He expressed concern over Amazon’s dominance in retail. “Although the industry has done well during the pandemic, we have seen further consolidation of sales into a single digital marketplace platform,” he said. “Such a lack of competition cannot benefit readers in the long run and that is why it is more important than ever that the government delivers on its commitment to come up with new powers to properly regulate tech giants in the next speech of the Queen.”
Two-thirds of books purchased from brick-and-mortar bookstores are “unexpected purchases” – picked up because they caught the buyer’s attention. Conversely, the same proportion of online book sales is expected – buyers will buy precisely what they are looking for and not look for anything else locally.
Of the £6.7bn in sales of all books in 2021, £2.7bn were UK domestic sales – a 7% increase – and £3.8bn were sales exports, up 2%.
Print grew by 5%, digital the same and consumer books by 4%. Fiction sales increased by 7%, representing £733m in sales, and children’s fiction increased by the same amount.
It was feared audiobook sales would take a hit during the pandemic as people weren’t getting around on public transport or driving, but audio downloads rose 14% to £151million .
Lotinga said, “What’s interesting is that audio sales don’t cannibalize other parts of the industry, it doesn’t mean one less book is sold. Audio drives people to read, and a lot of that is because it’s so easy to consume audiobooks now, especially with smart speakers.
The association calls on the government to scrap 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 isn’t a luxury, it’s the number of people who basically consume literature.