A request for a lifeline for independent bookstores, but also —especially from those who represent small publishers— the confirmation that today they are failing to meet the visibility needs of even the smallest businesses.

The state of health of bookstores that are not part of large chains was the focal issue of the debate organised at the Turin International Book Fair to discuss the future of books in Italy through the eyes of publishers.

According to the data presented at the Fair by the Italian Publishers Association in collaboration with Nielsen BookScan and within the framework of Aldus Up, the programme financed by Creative Europe, in the first four months of 2022 32 million books were sold through trade channels (physical and online bookstores and large-scale retail) worth 469 million euros at cover price value, down by 2.5% and 3.7% respectively compared to the first four months of the previous year.

But compared to pre-pandemic 2019, 5 million more copies were sold (up by 17%) corresponding to 65 million euros at cover price value (an increase of 16%). Weighing on the 2022 results were the increase in the price of paper—over 50% more than in January 2021—inflation at 6.2% (April’s figure) and the drop in the household confidence index from 117.7 in December 2021 to 100 in April 2022.

According to Enrico Selva Coddè, Mondadori, “This is the third consecutive extraordinary year, in other words one that generates extraordinary effects on the book world. In 2022, these extraordinary effects are due to inflation, and the increase in the cost of raw materials. If there is a drop in these early months compared to 2021, we are still well above 2019 levels, which indicates a growth that we can now take for granted” and which is due to profound changes in the Italian market and the demand for reading.

Physical bookstores sold books worth a cover price value of 245.8 million, online bookstores sold 201.7 million, and large-scale retail 21.6 million. This interrupts the growth by the online sector that had continued uninterruptedly since 2019, while physical bookstores continue to recover ground after the slump in 2020 due to closures caused by the pandemic. In terms of share, bookstores exceed half of sales with 52.4%, online has shrunk to 43%, and large retailers have dropped further to 4.6%. Behind the figure for physical bookstores, however, lie different trends for chain and independent bookstores.

“There is good news and bad news,” explained Stefano Mauri, GeMS. “The good news is the recovery of chain bookstores, something we did not expect to see until June last year. The bad news is the decline of independent bookstores for which a downward trend continues. We must do something like the French in order to support them because bibliodiversity is important and must be preserved,” explained the publisher with reference to policies promoting the growth of so-called ‘quality’ bookstores.

For his part, Selva Coddè recalls that precisely the pandemic, with the collapse in sales due to the closure of all shops, provided the greatest ever open-air experiment that demonstrated ‘the irreducible physicality of the book’, whose fate is therefore inextricably linked to bookstores. However, the signs of share recovery in the first part of 2022 “are not a general trend: we need to work on customer loyalty, on new audiences coming in for comics, a train we have taken, and accompany them towards more traditional books”.

The crisis in bookstores also worries Sandro Ferri, publisher of E/O, according to whom, in the online sector, “publishers, I don’t want to say quality publishers, but those with a more complex range” suffer the most.”Ferri even goes so far as to propose, as has been done in France, to curb Amazon by imposing a minimum charge for shipping costs and to limit the use of the 18app bonus granted to 18-year-olds to physical bookstores, a proposal also shared by Antonio Sellerio, who also stressed the value of independent bookstores in supporting publishers that are not part of large groups.

However, Lorenzo Armando, of Lexis Compagnia Editoriale in Torino, offers a slightly different view, pointing out that the difficulties of small publishers in this first part of 2022—the share of sales of those who sell less than 5 million a year at cover price is falling—are precisely due to Amazon’s slowdown. “While it’s true that it’s unhealthy to depend for more than 50% of your sales on one operator, if there was no Amazon it would be worse for us as we are often ignored by chain and independent bookstores.”

This article was originally published in the digital edition of the Giornale della libreria.