Education and Skills

Book sales are up: this is what we’ve been reading during the pandemic

A number of books stacked up on top of each other.

“It’s clear that many people rediscovered their love of reading last year,” said Stephen Lotinga, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association Image: Unsplash/ Sharon McCutcheon

Kate Whiting
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  • Sales of fiction books in the UK in 2020 grew by 16% – despite bookshops being closed during COVID-19 lockdowns.
  • Many people rediscovered a love of reading, according to the head of the UK Publishers Association.
  • Sales of consumer titles in the US for the first two months of 2021 are also up.
  • Here are some of the bestselling books from the past 12 months.

Have you read more or less during the past year? Without a commute, you might have lost that window of reading time, or perhaps you’ve looked for solace from reality in the pages of fiction.

If it’s the latter, you’re not alone. Sales of fiction books in the UK in 2020 grew by 16% to more than $970 million – even when bookshops were closed for months of the year, according to figures from the Publishers Association.

“It’s clear that many people rediscovered their love of reading last year,” said Stephen Lotinga, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association, “and that publishers were able to deliver the entertaining and thought-provoking books that so many of us needed.”

Have you read?
The breakdown of UK book sales in 2020.
The breakdown of UK book sales in 2020. Image: Publishers Association

Many of us were listening to books too, as audio downloads in the UK rose 37% to $188 million, while children’s books were up 2% at $560 million as families looked to entertain younger ones during lockdown. Non-fiction also performed strongly, with sales up 4% to $1.4 billion.

Readers turned to digital books, with sales soaring 24% to $591 million, but print sales were also up 4% to $2.4 billion.

“Publishing has proved incredibly resilient throughout the significant challenges of 2020,” Lotinga said.


What is the World Economic Forum's Book Club?

Strong book sales in the US

It’s a similar story in the US, where the trade or consumer book industry saw 9.7% growth in 2020.

Sales of consumer books were up 19.1% in February, at $646 million, and up more than 20% on the year to date, with $1.3 billion in revenue, according to the latest figures from the Association of American Publishers.

But while much of the world has gone virtual during the pandemic, readers still love the feel of turning pages in their hands, as sales of paperback and hardback versus ebooks show.

Percentage of total trade sales in February 2021, per format
Percentage of total trade sales in February 2021, per format Image: AAP

5 books we’ve been reading

The bestselling book in the UK for 2020, was The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy – a simple graphic novel of “friendship, fears, hopes and dreams and struggles” that has also spent 75 weeks (and counting) on the New York Times bestseller list.

Mackesy says the things he has learned in life, he’s tried to “distill into these little people” and he wants it to “catalyze good things”.


Also among the world’s bestselling books of last year was former US President Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, which was also Australia’s Christmas number one, according to Nielsen – and took the top spot on Amazon’s bestseller list for 2020.


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is on both the New York Times bestseller list and Nielsen’s top 10 bestsellers for 2020 in the UK. Set in quiet North Carolina coastal town in 1969, it tells the story of a young woman who goes from surviving by herself in the marsh to murder suspect.


UK comic actor David Walliams took the New Zealand Christmas number one spot with his children’s book Code Name Bananas. Set in World War II, it follows the adventures of a boy who busts a gorilla out of captivity with the help of his zookeeper uncle.


Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was also on Nielsen’s bestseller list for the UK in 2020 – and won the Booker Prize in 2019. It shines a light on the lived experiences of Black women in Britain, through 12 interconnected stories.


Our bookworms in the World Economic Forum Book Club have also shared their favourite reads from the past year, which include the bestsellers The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson.

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