Books provided a welcome escape from screens during the pandemic

As objects that are perfect in a lockdown, books are making for good business during the COVID crisis. Will it continue into 2021?
Marisa Coulton
(Luis Alvarez/Getty Images)
(Luis Alvarez/Getty Images)

The website for Balfour Books reads: “Won’t you come and say hello? We promise to keep a respectful distance. (Mind you, we always did).”

Customers have answered the call. “I’m surprised that business has been as good as it has,” says Joyce Blair, Balfour’s owner. Since the Toronto store reopened in mid-July with reduced hours after a four-month closure, sales have been steady. Blair attributes this to pandemic-induced boredom. “You can only watch so much TV,” she says. “In spite of everything, people love to read books.” One of the reasons the store has been able to stay afloat is the fact that Blair owns the property outright—something that cannot be said for all the city’s bookstores. “It’s heartbreaking to see,” she adds.

And yet, publishers are seeing massive sales jumps. Third-quarter results posted by Harper-Collins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster report increases of 13, 19 and 28.5 per cent, respectively. And 2021 promises more of the same, with some big titles due to be released after being held back this fall on account of the pandemic and U.S. election.

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In May, BookNet Canada, a trade association aimed at supporting Canada’s book publishers and retailers, reported a jump in the sale of juvenile titles and activity books as schools closed and children began studying from home. In the realm of adult literature, there was the peculiar (and perhaps inevitable) surge in the purchase of books on breadmaking. Several independent booksellers reported that there was a sudden increase in the sale of pandemic literature, especially Albert Camus’s The Plague.

And then, in the summer, things took a turn for the better. “Weekly sales in June, July and August (so far) have generally been trending above the corresponding weeks from 2019,” wrote Noah Genner, CEO of BookNet, in a recent article. Every week, BookNet gathers sales data from around 2,500 bookstores across Canada in order to monitor trends in the industry and streamline the supply chain for retailers, publishers and consumers.

“It’s hard to attribute it to one thing specifically,” says Genner. “Pent-up demand, people needing to fill leisure time in different ways, more books being available in fall than in the summer, and retailers getting better at curbside delivery—I think it’s a combination of all of these things.”

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He points to the fact that so many Canadians (roughly five million) began working from home during the pandemic, and now spend the better part of the day online. Genner suspects that people are buying books in order to escape the bluish glare of their computer screens. “The line between when your workday ends and your leisure time begins is blurry,” he says. He believes that a growing number of Canadians are looking to draw a firm line between work and home life, and for many, books are that line.

With the closure of bookstores in the spring, publishers held back releases from retailers that would normally be put out in the summer. “Retail stores began opening at the end of May and that was likely the biggest factor,” says Genner. He also attributes the spike in reading to “collectors,” a particular subset of readers who curate literature over time, hoarding books in large, precarious stacks. “Maybe people have read everything they had sitting on their shelves,” he says, “and now they’re buying new stuff.”

Will book sales continue to rise into 2021? “Yes,” he says. “Partly because I know there are some big titles coming out, and big titles can lift the whole market.”

“We can look at the data and see that a fair number of books have been delayed until 2021,” Genner says. The challenge will be the impact of the second wave of COVID-19 on retail. The closure of bookstores could cause yet another substantial shift in the market, he adds.

The publishing sector appears to be in recovery. In its second-quarter fiscal results, Indigo Books and Music reported an increase of $1.9 million in revenue compared to 2019, and its online channel saw 113.6 per cent growth. However, online book buying has its limits.

“One of the things that is most exciting about going into any bookshop is finding books that you didn’t know you wanted,” says Rupert McNally, manager of Ben McNally Books in Toronto. “I am worried about the readership losing that sense of discovery.” The store has implemented multiple initiatives, including in-store browsing by appointment, curbside pickup and Canada-wide delivery, and continues to fulfill the desires of its customers by ordering in copies of The Plague, a novel that aptly describes our collective moment: “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits,” Camus writes. And so, it is likely that the breadmaking and book-buying will continue well into 2021.

This article appears in print in the January 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Escape from the screen.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.