What a week. To paraphrase president-elect Joe Biden’s favourite poet, Seamus Heaney, it has been a week that opened two doors out of the darkness. First there is Biden’s victory itself, welcomed by a book industry that is arguably more Democrat than Republican on both sides of the Atlantic, and second, of course, there is the vaccine news and the hope of a return to a much better normal in the spring.
But there is a way to go yet, and bookshops are bearing the brunt. Two iconic stores, Stanfords in London and Shakespeare & Co in Paris, have crowdfunding schemes in place to aid their survival, while across France a collective of cultural organisations called on the French government to keep bookstores open as essential services, pre-empting similar calls by Waterstones’ MD James Daunt and the Bookseller’s Association here.
There has been better news in Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, where bookstores have remained opened as the UK enters the second lockdown, but in India one of Hyderabad’s best-loved bookstores, Walden, was forced to close after 30 years in business. Meanwhile, at India’s oldest bookshop, the grand Higginbothams in Chennai, founded in 1843, with its ‘old, wooden furniture, stained glass and long-stemmed lamps’ Covid-19 has restricted numbers in the large shop to five “which means there are often more staff than customers”, says director Gautam Venkataramani drolly. But he is defiant and adds that the store is beginning an online offering and is also developing its own e-reader, to make up for lost physical sales.
Three of the big five announced their own good news around the same time as the US election. Hachette Book Group reported sales up by 19.2% in the quarter ended 30 September 2020 over the comparable period in 2019, and Hachette UK reported a “stellar” quarter, with sales up 15.6%.
HarperCollins reported profits up 45% for the third quarter helped by the reopening of bookstores, a 20% increase in digital revenue and a 38% jump in direct-to-consumer revenue over the comparable quarter last year. Simon & Schuster also reported third quarter growth, with increased sales of both print and digital taking revenues up 28.5% and profits up by 5.5%. CEO Jonathan Karp said he thought indie booksellers had improved at online selling and added that now the election was over (except for someone who thinks it is still in play) shoppers may start their Christmas shopping early.
The UNESCO World Book Capital initiative marches on. Guadalajara in Mexico has been selected as UNESCO World Book Capital 2022, in recognition of its ‘comprehensive plan for policies around the book to trigger social change, combat violence and build a culture of peace’. It takes over from the Georgian capital Tbilisi on 23 April 2022 and will be the 22nd city to be awarded the honour.
Meanwhile, a previous UNESCO World Book Capital, Sharjah, wrapped up its 39th Sharjah International Book Fair. Sharjah’s Ruler, His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, is famous for his generosity towards cultural initiatives and this year was no exception. His Highness waived the stand fees for all exhibitors and also released a special fund of 10m UAE dirhams (approximately $2.7m) for the purchase of Arabic and foreign language titles from exhibiting publishers. The purchased books will go into Sharjah’s public library system. His Highness has also provided support for libraries in Beirut damaged by August’s explosion.
Finally, booksellers everywhere must have been delighted when they learned that there was a new Chimamanda Adichie story on its way. The writer is a much-loved figure, her books are stock items in many bookshops and her favourite bookshop in Lagos is an independent. So physical bookshops must be a little fed up that the story in question, Zikora, is an Amazon Original Stories Kindle exclusive. Kjersti Egerdahl, Amazon Original Stories senior editor, said Adichie “was eager to make sure this story joined the cultural conversation ahead of the US election, so our ability to stay nimble and publish with high speed and high quality played a role”. No one disputes that Amazon Kindle is probably the fastest route to publication – and nor would anyone dispute that a print edition of Zikora would sit well as an indie cash counter item similar to Fourth Estate’s small paperback of Adichie’s We Should all be Feminists.
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.