The impact of the pandemic on the book market, 3

In this third episode of the book market survey, we will try to explore reports and insights produced on the pandemic period, specifically for 2020-21.

In 2020, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, cultural consumption almost halved in Italy: a 47% decrease in average monthly household spending was observed in December 2020 compared to December 2019. However, this figure was substantially affected by those activities that were completely or partially stopped by the restrictions that were imposed to counter the pandemic contagion (cinema -84%; concerts -89%; theater -90%), while an increase was observed for books (+9%) and newspapers (+12%).

Although partial, these data offered by the Osservatorio di Impresa Cultura Italia-Confcommercio, in collaboration with Swg, allow us to begin to understand the trend of the publishing sector starting from the outbreak of the pandemic.

The AIE – Associazione Italiana Editori highlighted, in its annual report on the state of publishing in Italy, how 2020 showed a slight growth (+0.1%) compared to 2019 in terms of turnover: it went from 3,051.8 million euros to 3,056. Italian publishing thus ranks as the third largest in Europe, but well behind the top two (Germany, with a turnover of 9.3 billion, and the United Kingdom with 7.5).

In view of the forced closures that characterized the year 2020, we can see a decline in the number of printed books published (they were 78,279 in 2019, they fell to 73,675, thus -5.9%), with a corresponding increase, however, in digital production (+7.2%, for a total number of 52,273). Also worth noting is how the life cycle of books has been steadily increasing since 1991: in 2020, there are 1,253,257 commercially alive titles (excluding scholastic titles), an increase of 4.5% over 2019. This is for print books; for e-books, the increase in available titles over the previous year is 9%.

To explore these data, it is useful to note the type of initiatives put in place by publishers to deal with the pandemic emergency, which is accounted for in the Istat report on the Production and Reading of Books in Italy. 79.6% of operators postponed planned new publishing releases, 56.4% strengthened their online sales channels and almost a third (29.2%) expanded their offer of titles in digital format. In the months of lockdown, there were also numerous initiatives organized by publishers to promote reading: networks with independent bookstores for the sale and delivery of books at home (43.6%); events with readers through social channels or the internet (42.8%); online presentations, readings or reading recommendations by authors (26.9%). Among the other initiatives implemented: free access for teachers to webinars and digital teaching tools (40.0% of large publishers; 20.2% of medium-sized publishers); free distribution of e-books (52.9% of large publishers; 26.3% of medium-sized publishers); free downloading or listening to audiobooks reserved for people with disabilities (23.5% of large publishers).

As for the export of publishing rights, this marked a 0.2% increase in 2020 over 2019, made possible in large part, according to the AIE report already mentioned, by the measures adopted by the government to support the sale of rights. In general, it can be seen that book production is increasingly designed for the international market: the incidence of the sale of rights of Italian authors on annual production was 4% in 2019, while in 2020 it is estimated at 12%.

As the AIE, in the person of its President Riccardo Franco Levi, also pointed out, the overall value of the book market, calculated at cover price (+2.4), also grew in 2020. What obviously changed were the sales channels: compared to 2019, the physical ones (independent bookstores, chains, etc.) dropped from 73% to 57%; with a corresponding increase in online stores from 27% to 43%. The influence of the first Italian lockdown is clear on these figures: from the beginning of the year to April 16, the incidence of online stores on total sales was 48%, with a partial recovery of physical channels in the following months.

The influence of the pandemic was also clearly felt with regard to the performance of the various genres: educational publishing was penalized by the limited renewal of adoptions, caused by the closure of schools, which continued beyond the end of the first lockdown; just as the closure of the courts affected professional legal publishing. The AIE notes a particular crisis in art and tourism publishing. University publishing, on the other hand, has been rewarded by the closures, which have, in fact, prevented or limited the phenomena of illicit reproduction.

The growth of the publishing market was confirmed in the first six months of 2021, according to the AIE report: the value of the market, excluding educational publishing, stood at 698 million (+42% compared to 2020), equally divided between bookshops (332.9 million) and online (327.9 million); the number of copies sold grew even more (48 million, +44% compared to 2020). Revenue growth was particularly accelerated in the first two months of the year: 256 million, compared to 215 in 2020 and 191 in 2019.

In terms of sales channels, bookstores recover compared to 2020 (+3.4% on market share, for an overall 47.8%), but remain far from the 57.7% of 2019. Online drops slightly: 47%, -1% compared to 2020, but +12.9% compared to 2019. On the other hand, the net loss of large-scale retail is confirmed, which currently absorbs 5.2% of the market, compared to 8.2% in 2019. Growing, as a result of the easing of the pandemic situation, the number of new books published: 30,219, +23.5% over 2020, but still below the figure for 2019 (33,424).

As highlighted by the White Book on Reading and Cultural Consumption in Italy, the numerous government support interventions were decisive during 2020-2021 for the resilience of the publishing market. These include, in particular: 45 million euros to support demand aimed at citizens (18app and Carta Cultura); 30 million allocated to libraries for purchases; 10 million to increase the tax credit for expenses incurred by bookshops; 20 million in aid to small publishers and publishers of art and tourism; 5 million in direct aid to translators and 400,000 thousand euros in contributions for Italian translations abroad.

Reading habits during the pandemic period are a separate issue. As the aforementioned ISTAT report clearly indicates, reading was a fundamental activity in the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic: 62.6% of those interviewed stated that they devoted themselves to this activity in their free time; only TV and radio (93.6%) and telephone and video calls with relatives and friends (74.9%) achieved a higher percentage. Reading books, in particular, involved 26.9% of the population aged 18 and over: more women (30.8% compared to 22.7% of men) and people with higher educational qualifications (41.9% among university graduates and high school graduates, 16.4% among those who have only compulsory schooling). Of these readers, 21.6% turned to paper books and 7% to digital books (only 1.7% read both).

More detailed are the data provided by CEPELL (Center for Books and Reading) – AIE in the report on Reading in an Emergency Situation: May 2020, which show how reading (at least 1h/day) increased in the ranking of activities carried out at home during the lockdown period (survey in March 2020) for the youngest age groups (18% of respondents between 15 and 17 and 36% of those between 18 and 24). For the former, the percentage then dropped to 5% in the May 2020 survey, while for the latter, there was confirmed growth (41%). In percentage terms, reading grew overall for almost all age groups between 2019 and May 2020 (declining only among those aged 65 to 74).

According to the CEPELL – AIE report at the conference Leggere in pandemia #1 – Nuovi percorsi di lettura degli italiani, however, the trend is for a steady decline in the number of readers in Italy (a reader is defined, in the survey taken, as anyone who has read, even partially, a book of any genre and format in the previous 12 months): readers fell from 65% of the population 15-75 years old in 2019, to 59% in 2020, to 56% in 2021. The growth observed in the publishing market is therefore to be attributed, for the most part, to the growth of the so-called “strong readers”: the average number of books (including e-books, audiobooks, etc.) read in a year rose from 6.6 in 2019 to 7.8 in 2021, an increase of +18%. Established readers, from 7 books per year, increased from 20% of the total in 2019 to 23% in 2021; looking at the market, it is strong readers who buy 60% of the copies of books sold.

In short, the pandemic does not seem to have intervened in removing or mitigating those barriers, mainly geographical or structural in nature, that characterize the world of reading in Italy. On the contrary, the gap between North and South seems to be increasing, again according to AIE data: if in 2019 the percentage of readers in the North was 63% and in the South 41%, in 2021 they fell to 59% and 35% respectively, with a greater loss in the South. Similarly, the decrease among readers with high educational qualifications (university degree) was smaller than that among readers with low educational qualifications (-7% for the former, -14% for the latter).

It is also necessary to say a few words about the behaviors and habits that emerged in the context of the crisis. According to the AIE, among those who read the most, the reasons given are: greater availability of time (53%); greater tranquility at home (31%); boredom towards TV programmes and series (22%); use of online bookshops to find authors and titles that had escaped (14%); discovery of e-books (9%); distraction from everyday issues (8%).

Also with regard to purchases, the AIE always reports, the behaviors acquired during the lockdown have driven the growth of sales in early 2021. In particular, as far as non-chain bookstores are concerned, their customers have now incorporated some of the habits that emerged during the first period of the emergency: consulting the neighborhood bookstore’s website (for 12% of respondents); ordering the book online from the neighborhood bookstore’s website (5%); ordering/booking the book by phone (27%); having the book delivered to their homes (6%); and following online presentations (6%).

As already mentioned in part, the reading index remains, by far, the most critical aspect of Italian books. The White Paper on reading and cultural consumption in Italy indicates that this stands at 61% in our country, well below other European countries (Spain 68%; United Kingdom 86%; France 92%). As noted recently by Giulia Della Michelina, “not even the use of technological innovations and social strategies seems to be able to counteract this phenomenon”. Even if the influence of social or internet content in the choice of books appears to be growing.

On the whole, therefore, we can observe how the publishing market and operators in the sector have reacted in a timely manner to the pandemic context. However, although more thoughtful reasoning on the post-pandemic is still largely to be done (for some initial observations, see: G. Roncaglia and G. Solimine, La circolazione dei libri nel 2020: questioni aperte e ipotesi interpretative, “AIB studi”, vol. 61, no. 1 (January/April 2021), pp. 11-30), it can be seen that the measures employed to counter the emergency did not solve, not even in part, the pre-existing problems. In fact, the measures advocated by the various players in the sector go beyond the current situation and involve critical situations of a longer term. In particular, 41% of the libraries surveyed, 24% of the publishers and 21% of the booksellers felt the need to intervene in infrastructure for reading. While support for demand is considered a priority by 44% of publishers, 28% of booksellers and 18% of libraries.

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