Analysing the preliminary sales figures from 2021, we take a closer look at four bookselling markets in the northern Europe
In the past two years, the bookselling sector has been heavily impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, many booksellers took a heavy hit: they were forced to temporarily close their shops and, as a result, their sales numbers plummeted. Many countries continued to impose anti-pandemic measures and restrictions in 2021, which resulted in significant challenges for the international bookselling markets. The bookselling community has had to adapt to new conditions.
Despite difficulties, all the analysed markets experienced an overall growth in 2021. For the Swedish book market, it was a year of a new record high. For the first time ever, Swedish book sales generated a revenue of more than SEK 5 billion (around € 470 million); increasing across all sales channels. The sales in physical bookshops rose by +4.3%, following a dramatic -19.1% fall in 2020. On the other hand, the growth of online book sales slowed down in comparison with 2020, since people were able to return to their favourite brick and mortar shops more frequently. Despite this shift, physical bookshops have not managed to reach the pre-pandemic sales levels. Overall, online sales channels accounted for almost half of the total book market revenue in the country, followed by digital subscription services with 26.2%, physical bookshops with 20.1% and grocery stores with 4.4%.
The Norwegian book market also shows growing numbers for 2021 across all channels, with sales increasing by +8.5%. However, physical sales decreased by almost 10%, compared with the number of books sold in 2021 and 2020. Anne Schiøtz, director of the Norwegian Booksellers Association, attributed the decline to the fact that many bookshops had to stay closed for several weeks in the spring of 2021, due to the pandemic.
According to the figures from the Finnish Publishing Association, Finnish book sales for 2021 show an increase of +10.3%. Unfortunately, this hasn’t cascaded down to bookshops, as sales of printed books slowed in 2021. On the other hand, as noted by the Finnish Booksellers Association, the sales of electronic books increased considerably. This points to a trend that is observable in all the markets analysed: an important shift to digital formats.
Shift towards the digital
In recent years, digital books have been boosting the Finnish book market: in 2021, the sales of digital books grew by almost a third, following a +36.8% growth in 2020. Audiobooks seem to be especially popular in Finland: in 2018, 2019 and 2020, their sales more than doubled, and in 2021, they grew by almost 50%.
It’s clear that the popularity of digital books is on the rise, and not only in Finland. In Sweden, audiobook and e-book sales saw a notable increase of +13.3% and +36.9%, respectively. In Denmark, digital book sales are also growing rapidly: in 2020, they grew by a fifth. Danish figures also reflect the growing popularity of audiobooks: in 2020, Danish audiobook sales increased by over 50%. At the time of writing, Danish book sales numbers for 2021 have not yet been published.
Physical sales continue to lag behind
E-book and audiobook sales might be growing, but print books find it hard to keep up. In Sweden, hardcover book sales rose by +3.8% in 2021, and in 2020, paperback sales in the country saw a decline of -13.5%. In Norway, paperback sales fell by a notable -11% in 2021; in Finland, last year's overall print book sales fell by -0.1%.
We can assume that the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent measurements and restrictions have hastened the shift towards online shopping: as already mentioned, in Sweden, online sales channels now represent almost half of the book market revenue, whereas physical bookshops represent only one fifth, ousted by the more popular online subscription services. Danish figures from recent years reflect this trend: the Danish Booksellers Association points out that online book sales have been growing since 2013. Over the same time period, sales in brick and mortar bookshops fell by -5.1%. The decline between 2019 and 2020 accounts for about a half of this drop.
However, the trend of physical sales booming after pandemic restrictions were eased continued in 2021 and booksellers can be optimistic about upcoming months as customers return to the stores.
Audiobooks as companions
The shift to online sales channels indicates a change in customer buying habits, which goes hand in hand with the growing popularity of audiobooks and ebooks. The pandemic seems to be only a catalyst of these changes. For instance, while paperback sales are declining due to the limited travel options, according to the Swedish book trade magazine Svensk Bokhandel, they were already decreasing in the pre-pandemic period. Erik Wikberg, a researcher working on the annual report on sales statistics for the Swedish Booksellers Association, points at the growing popularity of audiobooks as a possible cause of paperbacks’ downfall.
Audiobooks have indeed taken northern Europe by storm, as evidenced not only by recent years’ sales figures, but also by the growing market share of Storytel, Stockholm-based audiobook and e-book streaming service. What is the reason behind their growing popularity? A report by the Finnish Literature Exchange offers one possible explanation for audiobooks’ success in the first year of the pandemic: “While many Finns commuted less than before as they switched to working from home, they also focused on exercise and spending time outdoors, which provided more opportunities to listen to audiobooks”.
However, as previously mentioned, the growth of audiobooks precedes the COVID-19 pandemic. A study conducted by two Stockholm School of Economics students in 2019 sheds more light on the phenomena: “Previous studies have highlighted the ability to multitask and lesser mental effort needed as reasons to listen to audiobooks, but neither multitasking nor 'need for cognition' were significant in [the] study. Somewhat surprisingly, 'need for companionship' was a significant belief.”
What lies ahead for 2022?
Many countries are gradually lifting most of the pandemic restrictions and measures. Further closures of ‘non-essential’ businesses, including bookshops, seem unlikely at this stage.
Following the new reading consumptions habit introduced by the pandemic, it can be assumed that the popularity of digital book formats will continue to grow. Booksellers now have the opportunity to fully integrate these sales channels into their daily business model and develop new customer bases. Nevertheless, bookshops thrive on active engagement within communities and booksellers are keen to re-establish the connection with physical customers in the months ahead.