Did Canadians read more during the pandemic? Experts say yes, despite bookstore struggles
According to industry experts, despite a tumultuous year for bookstores, Canadians increased their reading during 2020, particularly in the spring when books were a balm on the new reality of a deadly virus sweeping across the globe. (Pixabay / pexels.com)
TORONTO -- When the pandemic struck Canada in early March, spurring lockdowns and the closure of non-essential businesses, Canadians were suddenly parted from pastimes such as going to the movies, hanging out with friends in a bar or attending concerts.
But one of the few distractions still possible during a pandemic? Reading a good book.
According to industry experts, Canadians increased their reading during 2020, particularly in the spring when books were a balm on the new reality of a deadly virus sweeping across the globe.
Readers gobbled up books on topics from escapist romance to pandemic-themed thrillers to baking books.
Noah Genner, CEO of BookNet Canada, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview that in an April survey they conducted, “58 per cent of the respondents […] told us that they were planned on reading more because of COVID.”
Follow-up surveys found the rate of readership has “been steadily ticking up,” throughout the pandemic as well, he said.
“For the first three quarters in 2020, it’s about five per cent higher,” he said. “Five per cent more people are telling us that they read a book this year than did last year.
“That may not seem like a significant amount, but that is a fairly significant increase because that number doesn't normally change. It usually sits around 68, 69 per cent of all Canadians. But it's been more around 73 per cent since COVID.”
Beth Lockley, Vice President of marketing and communications at Penguin Random House, said in an email to CTVNews.ca that they had “absolutely” seen an increase in readership over the pandemic.
“Sales are up across all formats, and while we’ve seen interesting shifts in the demand for different genres or topics, one thing is clear: people want and need books more now than ever.”
BookNet Canada is an organization that does market research for the book industry, as well as develop technology and analysis. In an October post, they found that 76 per cent of readers said they mostly read “to enjoy or relax” — an increase compared to 2019, where only 59 per cent of respondents said they read for enjoyment over other purposes.
It’s likely a reflection of how people’s schedules changed when the pandemic hit, and other leisure activities were taken away, Genner said.
“I think people just want to escape from their everyday lives or from the pandemic,” Genner said. “Reading is definitely an opportunity to do that.”
He added that for those who work from home, particularly those whose work requires being in front of a monitor for hours, “being able to leave the screen behind and go and read a book is a definite demarcation point between ‘I'm working,’ and ‘I'm not working and now I'm in my leisure time.’”
SO WE READ MORE. WHAT DID WE READ?
Readers coped in different ways, but there were themes that stuck out as the months unfolded.
The grim side of things
“We did see, especially at the start of the lockdown and start of the pandemic, we saw a lot of books related to pandemics selling,” Genner said.
“Many retailers were having trouble keeping them in stock at the start of the pandemic because there was unforeseen demand.”
One example is Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” a 2015 release featuring the aftermath of a flu-stricken world. The book landed back on the Canadian best-selling list in March alongside her 2020 release “The Glass Hotel” as the pandemic started to become real to Canadians. Waubgeshig Rice’s “Moon of the Crusted Snow” was another release that saw an increase in sales around the beginning of the pandemic. The 2018 book is the post-apocalyptic tale of an Anishanaabe community dealing with the arrival of visitors fleeing a ruined society.
Genner said that the increase in interest in pandemic and apocalyptic fiction and non-fiction at the beginning of the pandemic reflected the need for people to understand the events around them.
“Books allow people to get a different view on things,” he said.
The urge to read up on pandemics wasn’t universal everywhere. According to a report from Nielson Book that was published in mid-May, although two in five U.K. adults reported reading more books since lockdown began, Nielson Book found that there was “currently little appetite for dystopian fictions or fiction and non-fiction titles relating to the pandemic.”
The urge to escape
But while some in Canada looked for gritty dystopian subject matter, the genres that saw the largest boost during the spring lockdowns were those that offered the most escapism, according to BookNet Canada.
Romance and romantic comedies saw a 280 per cent increase in April, they found, while fantasy/urban had a 153 per cent increase.
These genres continued to do well over the summer as well, Genner said.
Romance saw a lift in the U.S. as well doing the pandemic, with the NPD Group reporting that unit sales increased by 17 per cent from January to May, with a total of 16.2 million e-book and print romance books sold in that time.
The urge…to bake
Cooped up Canadians took to baking in the spring, worrying about sourdough starters and cookie tins to avoid worrying about everything else.
This meant an increase in cookbooks sold and read. The start of the pandemic saw a boom in books on one specific type of food in particular: bread.
“Huge, huge increase in bread-baking books,” Genner said. “There was a massive increase in baking books, cooking in general, but baking [bread] was the most specific one and it really, really saw a huge lift.”
Lockley added that while they also saw an increase in requests for bread baking books in March and April, other home hobbies like knitting and gardening picked up as well.
Problem-solving for school closures
Books were also there for parents who suddenly had to plan for having their children home 24/7.
“We saw a huge increase and continue to see huge increases in things like children's activity books, children's educational books,” Genner said.
“At the beginning of the pandemic during lockdown, bookstores provided the essential support tools needed to assist parents with unexpected home-schooling,” Rania Husseini, senior vice president of print at Indigo, told CTVNews.ca in an email.
Genner added that outside of teaching children, parents who were working from home would also potentially need ways to keep their kids occupied during times when they couldn’t be actively paying attention to them.
Some book trends throughout 2020 were shaped by global events other than the pandemic: Canadians purchased more books on anti-racism and books authored by Black writers during the summer, according to Genner, in response to the surge of Black Lives Matter protests that were unfolding in the U.S. and in Canada.
“Those subject categories, just like they did in the U.S., saw a huge lift in Canada, especially at the start of the summer when the protests were happening,” Genner said.
Husseini agreed, adding that it coincided with many stores reopening, and in-store book buying resuming.
“The interest in books on social justice topics grew tremendously and we continue to see a heightened interest in them to this day,” she said.
She added that there’s been “a strong interest in books written by authors with diverse backgrounds throughout all categories, including BIPOC and LGBTQ2+ writers.”
Lockley gave the example of books such as “The Skin We’re In” by Desmond Cole and “How to Be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi, as books that readers were reaching for in the summer to educate themselves.
“And these books have continued to be in demand throughout the fall,” she added.
The autumn of self-improvement
Those who desired to bake bread had already bought their books at the start of the pandemic, for the most part, but do-it-yourself, home improvement and self-help books started to see more of an increase as the months dragged on and summer ended, according to BookNet Canada.
Genner pointed out that people being stuck at home for longer means for many, “they’re looking at improving their houses and spending time renovating and things like that.”
Husseini added that people have been “increasingly looking for books to support their wellbeing including topics such as stress management, meditation, mindfulness, and health,” as well as improving their surroundings.
Lockley said Penguin Random House has also noted an increase in interest for “books about burnout and self-care, as people are perhaps experiencing some level of pandemic fatigue.”
She gave the examples of titles such as “Burnout” by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, and “Lean Out” by Tara Henley.
HOW DID WE READ?
Although the interest in reading increased in 2020, when non-essential businesses were closed due to the pandemic, that included bookstores.
It was a blow to bookstores big and small. Indigo, one of the largest retailers of books in the country, reported a loss of around $58 million in the first quarter of 2020, compared to their 2019 numbers.
However, they reported in a news release that the company was “able to blunt some of the impact of these closures through its online channel which experienced exceptional growth.
“Online revenue grew 214 per cent for the 13-week period compared to last year, remaining strong through the reopening period.”
Canadians didn’t just order more physical books using websites in the spring. They also read more e-books than in previous years.
“When stores were closed and when libraries were closed, digital reading […] went through the roof,” Genner said.
He added that libraries saw “massive growth in their digital collections being checked out or used by patrons.
E-books represented 17 per cent of the units being purchases last year, Genner explained.
“But so far in the pandemic, they've been up around 25 per cent,” he said. “Which is actually [a] significant increase in the volumes we're talking about.”
Audiobooks, on the other hand, didn’t see quite the same jump, largely, Genner thinks, because most people were no longer commuting to work during the first wave of lockdowns.
“[The work commute] is when a lot of consumption of audio books happens.”
THE RESILIENCE OF BOOKS
Despite the increase in digital sales, and despite the appetite Canadians had to read during the pandemic, shutdowns still had a significant financial cost. BookNet Canada reported that print sales for the first six months of 2020, compared to the same time period the year before, “show a decrease of at least three million units and 63 million dollars.”
Lockley said “there was worry, of course,” at the beginning of the pandemic for Penguin Random House, “realizing that stores would have to temporarily close, and concern, both for bookstores and our authors, especially those with books that had just come out.”
“But we moved very quickly into high gear, and everyone rolled up their sleeves to support our authors, booksellers, and each other.”
Their publicity teams shifted into high gear to change planned book launches to “virtual experiences.”
Independent bookstores scrambled to set up websites — many for the first time, Lockley said — and implement strategies such as curbside pick-up to keep business going.
There was a push to support small brick-and-mortar businesses, and continue ordering from them as opposed to massive, online-only retailers like Amazon. The Association of Canadian Publishers put together an independent bookstore directory listing independent bookstores across the country, as well as what options they offered for getting books to customers during the pandemic.
“I was pretty impressed with, just from a supply chain perspective, at how quickly publishers and retailers kind of adapted to the new reality,” Genner said.
Many small bookstores came up with creative ideas to keep going, such as offering local delivery, “or selling wine, which is what several bookstores in Guelph, Ontario, did with their books,” he said, praising the “on the fly entrepreneurship.”
When stores reopened, customers were ready: sales rebounded in the summer, with weekly sales in June, July and August trending generally higher than in 2019.
Genner said that book sales were higher than expected during the fall as well. He believes a lot of that is down to the publishers and retailers managing the crisis well.
“Better than I would have personally would have expected under the circumstances we are,” he said.
The increased business in the fall also could’ve been impacted by the influx of new titles that were coming out.
“Because of the lockdown in April, May, June, a lot of publishers didn't actually push out new titles,” Genner explained. “You don't really want to push new titles into the marketplace with no place for them to go, and so a lot of those titles were held until the fall or until the latter part of the summer.”
The strength of the book industry to keep going despite the struggles of operating in a pandemic don’t mean that industry experts aren’t concerned about the effects of lockdowns. Both Indigo and Penguin Random House called for the Ontario government to designate bookstores as an essential service in late November, citing the impact on authors, publishers, small bookstores and the communities around them.
But the number of Canadians who reached for books in their time of need show that the demand is still there, even in a crisis.
“As our social circles and our options for connection are reduced, books are a constant,” Lockley said. “We’ve seen people using lockdown as a chance to tackle those books on their bucket lists – the classics they never got around to reading, or the bestseller they’ve been meaning to dive into for months.
“I think it’s been incredible to see, although not at all surprising, just how resilient books are.”