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Books Column: Books are back, and other observations on our post-lockdown retail world


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

Ben Williams crunches some numbers and finds cause for optimism in South African bookselling trends.

Since 2019, it has been my privilege as a journalist to receive the unvarnished retail sales numbers for the South African book trade, which arrive each week in my inbox like clockwork.

I use these numbers to calculate the Daily Maverick Top Ten Best Sellers list, which I update monthly, and which is the only credible list of its kind in the country. Don’t sleep on it!

(Also, don’t ask me for the numbers. I would sooner give you my bank card PIN.)

Of course, when I worked at Exclusive Books, as soon as the weekly reports came in we would pore over them fanatically, aiming to discern any micro-trend that might give us an edge in our ordering and merchandising. Old habits die hard, but while I still pore over the data fanatically, now it’s with an eye on the macro. On that score, these numbers in toto help address the key question, Which way is the book trade headed?

For the past few years the answer has been, all too often, “the wrong direction”, as book sales slumped through the various lockdowns.  This included the catastrophic autumn of 2020, when trade dropped literally to zero for weeks on end, all shops having been shuttered during the first Covid wave. Not receiving sales reports during this time put one in a frantic, despairing panic.

But we’ve just arrived at the end of the first quarter of 2022, and a comparison of the numbers for the most recent weeks of this year with the same weeks from the previous three years offers a bit of encouragement. Looking at the respective top 100 lists for fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, we see 2022 edging healthily ahead of last year, for both units sold and rands through the tills. And comparing 2022 with 2019 and pre-lockdown 2020, we see the current year approaching something like 95% of the pre-Covid world’s volumes.

There are many ways to slice and dice sales figures, of course. Given that my analysis is based only on the top 100 charts, rather than the complete lists of all books sold; given that I’ve removed certain anomalies from years prior; and given that I’ve only sampled a couple of weeks, rather than crunching the numbers for the full quarter, no doubt my conclusions are open to challenge.

Yet, if you add a promising first quarter of 2022 on top of a fairly stonking final quarter of 2021, there’s cause to smile. It feels as though books are back. Let’s whisper it – no, let’s say it aloud: Books are back, baby!

(Another interesting data point comparing 2019 and 2022 is that the average selling price for an adult trade book in the top 100 has only increased by R4; and for South African titles, the ASP has actually dropped by about R20.)

Within the context of books being back, there is another trend that bodes well for South African bookselling, if those in a position to take advantage of it do so. This trend has to do with the aforementioned Exclusive Books, which like all businesses had to place survival above everything else during the pandemic. As many who know the industry will appreciate, Exclusive Books is the tallest pole in the South African book trade tent: without its retail power, the bookselling landscape as we know it would be dramatically different.

I don’t have hard data to back up my next contention, but reading the sales charts week after week, I’ve got the sense that the biggest influence on them, the bookselling chain, tacked toward middlebrow content during the pandemic, de-emphasising the highbrow titles it has been known for during previous decades and focusing more on popular books, along with perennials, to guarantee the turnover that would ensure its safe passage through choppy waters.

This is no slight on Exclusive Books, and I’m more than willing to be challenged on the point. But if I’m right, and it’s more difficult to find one’s next off-the-beaten-track read at the chain than during times past, then an opportunity beckons for independent booksellers. Bringing in even more fine fiction and non-fiction, and taking greater risks on independently-published, unconventional, or playful titles that need hand-selling, might pay a handsome dividend, now that South Africa’s hunger for books is finally on the rise again. Sales are looking up; here’s to the next stop on the road to recovery, a renewed celebration of bookselling flair. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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