Brace for impact

So, the numbers are coming in for the first quarter in publishing and they’re not as terrible as one might think. But look, up there above you: it’s the other shoe, and it’s about to drop. Actually, it’s an anvil being hauled up by a rope for some reason. No, wait, it’s a steel safe. I stand corrected, it’s a piano. A grand piano. Right over your head. Now we have reached full tragicomic potential. But is there hidden opportunity in here?

In the days before the lockdown began, Waterstones reported a 17% uplift in sales, a rise that has only grown in the weeks since; a central irony, for publishers, has been that in the moment when books have been suddenly more difficult to get hold of, demand for them has never been higher. A recent survey suggested that 40% of people say that books have helped them get through the lockdown. All publishers report a dramatic increase in traffic on their websites, and in ebook and audio sales. Online sales at Waterstones are growing 30% each day; as I write they are up some 1,500%, a long line of Royal Mail trucks queuing outside its warehouse every night, where there used only to be one. “It’s still a relatively small proportion of the sales that were coming out of our shops,” says Daunt. “But hopefully, customers can now see that online is not a monopoly.” Publishers are unsurprisingly thrilled by this. Can Amazon’s monopoly be broken? “One thing that must come out of this is a model where online selling is more plural,” says Stephen Page.

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