Coronavirus escapism: book sales surge during lockdown

People browsing in a bookshop.
With much of the world's population in lockdown, many people are getting back into reading.
Image: Unsplash/Pauline Loroy
  • Book sales offered a bright spot for retailers as general sales dropped in final weeks of March.
  • People in lockdown are looking for inspiration and education.
  • UK fiction sales climbed by a third.
  • In the US there was a 66% lift in sales of children’s non-fiction titles.
  • The outlook for the publishing sector remains unclear.

Book sales are a bright spot for retailers, as people in lockdown around the world pile in to novels and educational titles to help them get through isolation, sales figures suggest.

In the UK, fiction sales climbed by a third and children’s educational titles went up 234% to the third-highest level on record in the final week of March, according to a BBC report. Similarly, in the US there was a 66% lift in sales of children’s non-fiction books in the week ending 21 March, according to the NPD Group.

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In the UK, sales of children’s educational books are up by 234%.
Image: BBC

Attempts to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic mean an unprecedented number of people are staying at home. With more than 100 countries worldwide instituting either full or partial lockdowns by the end of March, billions of people aren’t taking part in their usual daily activities.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

A higher demand for in-house activities

“Self-isolation around the world has seen a boom in reading,” said Hugo Setzer, International Publishers Association (IPA) president. “Books and reading are the ideal way of escaping our four walls, but also to understand what is happening around us, how to overcome this and how to make our lives better in the future.”

With schools shut in many parts of the world, parents are turning to online resources and traditional textbooks. The NPD Group data shows the uplift in children’s books in the US was driven by sales of general activity books, up 128%, study aids which climbed 235%, and school and education titles that surged 143%.

The UK and US governments are among those that have imposed travel restrictions, social distancing measures and closures of schools, bars and restaurants.

“Interactivity and high play value were two characteristics tying all of this week’s best-selling juvenile titles together,” said Kristen McLean, NPD Group’s books industry analyst. “School at home combined with a higher demand for fun, in-house activities have lifted educational and activity book sales.”

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
As merchandise spending declines in the US, book sales are a rare bright spot.
Image: npd

Can bookshops survive?

Even so, it’s not all good news for the retail industry, with the NPD Group data showing total dollar sales declined 16% in the week ending 21 March. While books offer a bright spot amid the decline for now, it remains to be seen whether the initial flurry will continue.

Many bookshops around the world have been forced to close and publishing companies are taking steps to cut costs in anticipation of the economic downturn brought about by the pandemic. Meanwhile, education publishing companies are making their online offerings fully or partially free to access, the IPA said.

While Pearson – a publishing and online education company – said it has seen an “explosion” in demand for online learning in the wake of the school closures, it also issued a profit warning for 2020, predicting the pandemic will hit overall sales.

And while Nielsen BookScan, the UK’s official book sales monitor, says that sales were up 6% in the week to Saturday 21 March, they are believed to have since fallen as shops closed.

Companies including Bonnier, Hachette, Macmillan and Scholastic have all imposed cost-cutting measures.


“The livelihoods of many authors, booksellers, publishers and all the freelancers that support them are at risk,” the IPA said. “We will need to stand together to come through this.”