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What’s behind the boom in book sales during the pandemic?

The need for escapism is something we all feel. Returning home after a long day of work can make Netflix, iPlayer or Amazon Prime, with their hundreds of box sets, seem rather appealing. Even when so many have been working from home, cultural escapism has ensured a divide between the working day and relaxation time. Talk of burnout, not least during essay and exam  season, gets raised time and again. It makes that escapism from academia, even for degrees we love, even more essential.  

This can be a key part of explaining why book sales have done so well over the last year. Fiction sales in particular soared throughout 2020 by £100 million, while audiobook sales increased by a third, according to the Guardian. Fiction sales increased by 16% from £571 million to £688 million, demonstrating the continued value and importance of fiction in difficult times. In particular, books that sold well include the Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, The Thursday Murder Club by Pointless co-presenter Richard Osman, and Maggie O’Farrell’s  Hamnet.  

The news has often been so dire and negative that any chance of escapism, curling up into a book, is a positive one

The rich range and variety of the fictional reads that have garnered popularity recently highlight the breadth of stories that have provided the escapism individuals so desperately wish for. With bookshops being closed for months on end during the lockdown, print sales fell by 6%. By contrast, digital sales increased by 12% to £3 billion, with only £0.4 billion separating the amount spent on print and digital books.  

I myself don’t read ebooks. Normally, if I want to buy a book, I will either go to a bookshop or a charity shop. During the repeated lockdowns, I’ve had no alternative but to order online. Where possible, I’ve tried to avoid using Amazon to ensure that smaller companies are able to deservedly receive the financial benefits of my purchase. Ordering books online is, like purchasing other products, just so convenient. It is no wonder then that widespread book purchasing has since increased.  

I imagine many people have bought books they may not have otherwise purchased in a ‘normal’ year, for multiple reasons. Firstly, there is the case of simply having more time if you are not a key  worker. Secondly, the news has often been so dire and negative that any chance of escapism, curling up into a book, is a positive one. Furthermore, individuals no doubt want to help authors.  

Nobody writes books for the money, but authors deserve to be financially compensated for the time and effort they have put into creating such visionary works.  

Indeed, those in charge of managing book finances have tried to make sure that authors receive their royalties and that those who financially struggle are given the assistance they need. The Society of Authors, for example, gave out more than £1.3 million to more than 900 authors through its Authors’ Contingency Fund, demonstrating how it was trying to provide the necessary help to writers.  

This funding is extremely important. The books that are likely to have sold well will have been those written by well known novelists or personalities. The obscure writer, of whom far less is known, will receive a fraction of the coverage, if any, within the literary world. Lots of authors, perhaps even those who are established, rely on a second and even a third job to ensure they can afford to write. Evenings and weekends, the periods when an individual is meant to enjoy some free time, become the occasions where people craft their talent and try to make their writing work.  

The demand and yearning for words and ideas is something that not even a pandemic can stop

This demonstrates how important it is that individuals have the opportunity to craft their words that could be read by so many others. With new authors come new ideas and new interpretations of how the world should be understood, and understandings of the most important ideas affecting society. These words can only be heard, appreciated and constantly re-evaluated if writers are given the potential to perfect their craft. Even though words should transcend any instrumental purpose, financial security allows writers to reach their potential.  

With the rise in fiction sales has also come an appreciation for non-fiction texts. They increased by 4% to £1 billion, with Jamie Oliver’s 7 Ways selling particularly well. Again, those who had more time will have perhaps used it productively to find new hobbies. Banana bread was all the  rage in the first lockdown, for example. With more time spent inside, individuals have found more opportunities for engaging in hobbies that interest them in depth.  

Literature and books will never go away. The demand and yearning for words and ideas is something that not even a pandemic can stop. Instead, the focus has to be on ensuring that many high quality writers are able to enjoy seeing their words in print. This ensures that new ideas and unique interpretations are represented, enabling the highest quality of fiction to be available in the years to come. While books are going nowhere, we must ensure that we keep up supporting the most promising talent, even after lockdown. 

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