Due to the pandemic, for the second year running the Advanced Seminar by the Umberto and Elisabetta Mauri School for Booksellers (Scuola UEM) could not be held at the Giorgio Cini Foundation, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, and had to resort to streaming. Guiding the discussion between the Italian and international guests held on 28 January was a reflection on the new future of the book world: on the one hand grappling with the pandemic uncertainty that is gradually descending into an endemic scenario of change; on the other hand committed to the positive performance of publishing in 2021 in most of Europe.

As usual, the Seminar was an opportunity to present the market data of the Italian Publishers Association, produced in collaboration with Nielsen BookScan. “Very good figures even when compared to the performance of other countries in Europe,” commented Ricardo Franco Levi, AIE President and FEP Vice President, with trade publishing reaching 1.701 billion euros in sales at cover price, for 115.6 million copies (a good 18 million more than 2020), up 16% and 18% respectively on the previous year.

Numbers that do not allow us to be less vigilant, since the future, continued the president, is not without its unknowns: “On the positive side, the confirmation of public support measures and the expectation for a new law to support the book supply chain. But there is also the paper emergency, in terms of prices and availability, and the heavy impact of piracy continues. In addition, some sectors, such as art and tourism publishing, are still suffering the effects of the pandemic.”

Moreover, the paradigm of change accompanying us as we enter the third year of the pandemic is evident in the crux of the “propagation” of books, explored during this Seminar by the roundtable Publishing reset: selling books in a different world.

James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones and CEO of Barnes & Noble, pointed out how the resilience of the physical book market—that of paper books sold in brick-and-mortar bookshops—is one of the most extraordinary aspects of the Covid pandemic, describing 2021 as “the best year for a bookseller since I started my job as a bookseller”. Daunt explains that the reason for this resistance lies in the possibility that only the bookseller has to create an empathetic relationship with the reader, which makes his work difficult to replicate in the e-commerce scenario.

On the other hand, the fact that books and bookshops are once again becoming familiar places for young people is also due, as Daunt points out, to another type of empathic communication: that enabled by social networks and TikTok in particular. The case that sets the standard is that of Madeline Miller and her The Song of Achilles, published in 2011 by Bloomsbury Publishing and back at the top of the charts ten years later thanks to the recommendation of a booktoker who included the title in a list of “books that make you cry”. A case that, in Daunt’s view, “unleashed the same energy in bookshops that we saw with Harry Potter.” But it is not the only one, nor the most singular, considering that in the United States “James Joyce’s Ulysses is back among the bestsellers after going viral on TikTok”.

Michael Busch (Thalia) also dwells on empathy, counting it among the five trends that will guide the new future of books, saving it from a crisis that—for the company of which he is CEO—has cost “60 million euros, the equivalent of three years of investment budget”. The other four are the multi-channel approach, data-driven process optimisation, logistical efficiency and the development of an ecosystem that convinces readers to stay and which embraces all the above.

“Small booksellers account for 45% of the Tolino alliance,” Busch says, referring to the experience of Thalia, as one of its cofounders, “which is one of the reasons why Amazon has a lower penetration in Germany. Turning a company into a platform and opening it up to booksellers has allowed us to shorten the distance to the customer and lets the customer never feel the need to leave our ecosystem: an open, complete, integrated ecosystem.”

As happened with the Seminar 2021, one of the themes that has emerged strongly from the pandemic scenario is that of the advancement, in the sales basket, of catalogue titles as a result of the setting of a quota for new releases. While last yearthe reduction in new launches was unanimously welcomed by the Scuola UEM roundtable as a positive development because it allowed publishers to take more care of each title and booksellers to give each one more space for visibility, this year a more critical opinion came from Andrew Franklin, founder and managing director of Profile Books.

Confirming a dynamic that we are also observing in Italy, where, against a 7% increase in sales of new titles, the backlist growing by 20%, Franklin says that in the UK, on a fairly stable book market, the share of backlist titles is increasing. “The downside is that the percentage of new books has shrunk, it is increasingly difficult to publish new authors and new titles, and as a consequence bookshops are less likely to see the arrival of new titles that will become bestsellers in the future.” For the well-being of writers and our industry, Franklin continues, it is important to support new publishing, “especially until the book fairs, events and book promotions get up and running again”.

Franklin himself confirms, especially during the pandemic, the essentiality of bookshops as a place of discovery, of approach, of casual encounters with books. Bookshops are tending to specialise more and more, covering specific niches of interest and consumption and exploring the sides of diversity, representativeness, and inclusion. As in the case of the black bookshops that, says Franklin, are multiplying in London: independent bookshops owned by Afro-descendants whose assortment explores production by black authors.

Books don’t die anymore,” says Stefano Mauri, vice-president and CEO of Messaggerie Italiane and president and CEO of GeMS, summarising the complexities and opportunities of the transformation. In the complete and infinitely searchable assortment online, their second chance can come from anywhere. “Previously it only happened when a story was turned into a Hollywood production, today, on TikTok, a teenage creator can singlehandedly determine the success of a title. And it can happen at any point in the book’s life cycle. For the publisher, this means playing with a deck of cards containing far more wild cards.

In short, while a few years ago the main element of sales dynamics seemed to be the choice of channel, today the choice of channel of choice, or rather of approach, to the book appears to be much more relevant. As Daunt underlined at the beginning of the article, and Mauri confirms, social networks bring “different, younger readers to books and bookshops, who might not have reached us in any other way”: this is the same dynamic of manga or, in some ways, of audiobooks. “All this makes our activity more unpredictable,” continues Mauri, “but it adds to our traditional actions without cannibalising them.”

In a debate which, despite the spectre of the pandemic, painted a rosy picture of the state of books in Europe, the roundtable had to also discuss everyone’s fears for the future. For Franklin, it was the state of the economy in general that worried him, for Daunt it was the stability of the logistics system. Mauri confirmed President Levi’s concerns about paper for book production and packaging. Busch, on the other hand, is afraid that our business sector will repeat its past mistakes: “In the 25 years I have worked in publishing, I have listened to many people philosophising about our sector, analysing what it was in the past, what it was becoming, how it was changing. In short, we were talking about our lemon instead of squeezing it, while someone was stealing it from us.” The reference seems to be to the big e-commerce companies, and the suggestion is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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