From Italy to the world: some comparative insights on reading and bookstores, 5

In this fifth episode of the book market survey, we will offer some elements for a comparative investigation of the Italian book market, in relation to what happens beyond our borders. b

Studying the phenomenon of reading from a comparative perspective is, as Antonio Lolli pointed out back in 2019 in the Giornale della Libreria, extremely complex. In addition to the difficulties inherent in surveying, such as the fact that some genres are not associated with reading (from cookbooks to guidebooks to collateral products on newsstands), there is great heterogeneity in the “criteria for estimating the reading rate chosen by international monitoring companies: an aspect that sometimes makes comparison even more difficult.”

As already noted in previous issues, CEPELL – Centro per il libro e la lettura, in collaboration with AIE – Associazione Italiana Editori, found that the reading index stands at 61% in our country, well below other European countries (Spain 68%; United Kingdom 86%; France 92%). At present, the most extensive comparative study conducted in Europe on the topic remains a 2018 Eurostat survey, based on research conducted between 2008 and 2015 in 14 European Union countries, plus Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Serbia. In terms of average daily time devoted to reading, the countries surveyed range from a high of 13 minutes (Estonia) to a low of 2 (France). Italy ranks second to last (5 minutes), along with Romania and Austria, while Finland, Poland (both 12 minutes) and Hungary (10 minutes) do well.

Looking instead at the percentage of regular readers, once again Finland (16.8%), Poland (16.4%) and Estonia (15%) dominate the ranking; Italy stands at 8.5%, followed by Serbia (8.2%), Belgium (7.9%), Austria (7.2%), Romania (6.2%) and France (2.6%). It is interesting to note that, in all countries, the majority of regular readers are women. Giulia Della Michelina, commenting on this data in December 2020, noted how “the state of health of reading is worrying in all European countries taken into consideration by the research”, indicating a rethinking of the approach to reading in schools as the key to changing this situation. Some interesting ideas on this specific aspect will be offered in the next issue of our in-depth study.

Regarding the book market, European publishing in 2019 was worth a total of between 36 and 38 billion euros, according to AIE data. In the top 10 global publishing groups, 5 were European: Pearson, Bertelsmann, Wolters Kluwer, Hachette, Springer Nature. In pandemic 2020, the trade market (excluding e-books and audiobooks) showed growth in the Netherlands (+7%), the UK (+5.5%), Finland (+2%) and Spain (+1%), and a net loss in France (-2%), Germany (-2.3%) and Portugal (-19%). For the first six months of 2021, on the other hand, according to IEA data, a general recovery was observed with respect to the corresponding period of 2020 in the miscellaneous market (again, excluding e-books and audiobooks): in France and Spain +43%, +42% in Italy, +19% in Portugal, more moderate growth in Germany and the Netherlands (+4%).

The data from the GFK survey on the book market in the first half of 2021 are more comprehensive, providing an overview of 8 European countries plus Brazil, distinguishing between value trends and trends in terms of copies sold, and also identifying price variation figures. We can observe here a clearly positive result for Belgium, France, Spain and Italy compared to 2020 and a more contained one for Germany which, in the face of a growth in value that is in any case insufficient to return to the levels of 2019, marks a decline (-1.5%) in copies sold. As noted by Bruno Giancarli in the Bookstore Journal, “one of the most significant trends that emerges from comparing the data is that the value growth of the market depends on a noticeable increase in the average price of sales in Europe, with the exception of Italy,” where prices remained stable (+0.4%). On the other hand, a market such as Brazil saw a 7% decrease in cover price compared to the previous year.

While many comparative studies have been conducted on the performance of foreign book markets, the situation is more complex when it comes to the physical places where books are sold. Here, the difficulties of comparison are even greater, not to mention the fact that in many non-EU countries, attention to the subject is still limited. We would like to point out that, as the Gramsci Centre for the humanities, we have made contact with the cultural ministries of Turkey and Thailand, which have informed us that their respective governments do not provide a survey of the fabric of bookstores in the country. For a more general analysis on the subject of reading, the data collected by the Turkish statistical institute on culture, school, sports and tourism can be found here (interesting data on libraries, which are given as increasing).

This lack of attention should not come as a surprise, if we consider that even in Italy we had to wait until 2020 to have a vast survey mapping the world of bookshops, with the report edited by ALI – Associazione Librai Italiani and Confcommercio, to which we have already made ample reference in the second issue. As the Gramsci Centre, we have sourced some data, looking outside of Europe and the United States to Canada and China. Twice a year the company OpenBook publishes reports on the Chinese book market: the complete list of reports published can be found at this address. Some interesting data are provided on sales channels. For an interesting comparative analysis, concerning the specific case of some bookshops in Venice and Shanghai, see a recent and interesting thesis work, discussed at Ca’ Foscari.

As far as the Canadian context is concerned, the NGO BookNet Canada conducts surveys that cover all aspects of the book world: from the state of independent bookstores, to reading behaviors, to the characteristics and trends of the publishing market. The hope is that these and other data can be collected and put to good use in the construction of a wide-ranging comparative study on the world of bookshops, which will also go beyond Europe’s borders.

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