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Picture: 123RF/ josefku bes
Picture: 123RF/ josefku bes

The robustly rebounding book industry is a sober lesson to all who try to predict the effect of new media technology.

A few years ago the path of the book trade was obvious, wasn’t it? We would soon be consuming everything on mobile screens, which were cheaper and more efficient. Bookstores would quickly go the way of music stores. A few high-end books might be available in print for the nostalgic, and maybe a few struggling independent bookshops would keep going on the margins.

Our children would be engulfed by bytes of social media trivia, mostly in video, and it would render them unable to concentrate long enough to appreciate the deep pleasure of immersing themselves in the warm and rich world of a physical book. And the pandemic would accelerate this, much as it has done to magazines.

Not so. All reports indicate that e-books have peaked, print books are back in demand, independent bookstores are still there — and much of the resurgence is driven by the very medium many thought would destroy it: TikTok. Lesson one: never believe those who predict how people will consume media. Like those who threw away their old record players, we are constantly surprised.

Speaking this week to a range of players in our book industry — including publishers, chain-store operators and independent shopkeepers — I was surprised by how buoyant they are. They have had two tough pandemic years, and some have gone down — notably the promise of a revitalised CNA, which was going to be dedicated to local books. But the numbers this year are better than the last “normal” year, 2019.

And within that, there are some interesting trends. SA’s book industry is selling slightly fewer books (about 3.5-million a year), but generating more revenue: about R2.2bn a year, of which this year R745,000 is what they call trade (as opposed to education and academic). That’s up from about R670,000 in 2019. The increased revenue is because the average book price has moved in three years from R178 to R213.

Exclusive Books CEO Grattan Kirk says revenues for 2022 so far are up 10% over 2019, as are those for Jonathan Ball Publishers, according to CEO Eugene Ashton. Terry Morris of Pan Macmillan says last year was its best ever. Kate Rogan of Love Books in Johannesburg says panic-buying before lockdown was “better than Christmas”, and Christmas 2022 was the best ever.

There is also a shift in the type of book that is in demand: more fiction, in a country that has always favoured sociopolitical texts. Also selling well are personal improvement, LGBTQI+, books tied to Netflix shows, and children’s books. Afrikaans books do disproportionately well, with 27% of the trade market. The growth is in print books, while e-books remain under 15% of our market. Audiobooks are growing 200%-300% a year but off a very low base, according to Ashton.

Independent bookstores are doing okay, here and around the world, particularly those that actively create communities and host events, making the shop a venue, a destination and a serendipitous place where you can get a human, non-algorithmic recommendation. A big factor is the reopening of airports, as these bookshops sell a lot of local content to the tourist market.

And then there is the biggest surprise: a TikTok hashtag has brought a new generation of young adult readers. #BookTok has a new set of ordinary youth sharing the books they love — and some have gone hugely viral. By all accounts this audience loves the authentic, organic nature of it – as opposed to the know-it-all, top-down world of traditional reviewing. It is their peers telling them what is worth knowing, not alien experts saying what is good for them.

This is the industry’s “pandemic saviour”, Nilanjana Roy wrote in the Financial Times. “#BookTok has rapidly become one of [TikTok’s] most popular and influential subcommunities … to date the tag has had over 41.8-billion views.” It has revived old books, turned unexpected ones into bestsellers and made publishers pay attention to their social media. Bookshops now have “Trending on #BookTok” sections, strong on fantasy and literary fiction.

In SA this phenomenon has boosted certain categories of international books, not so much local publishing yet. We await the emergence of some local #BookTok personalities.

So it is like a book with an unexpected twist in the end. But it is the drop in sales volumes and increase in book prices that point to the central issue for the sequel. Not only is this a small market, but the percentage of citizens who buy books is comparatively small. The future of the trade depends on that being tackled. Maybe TikTok will do it.

• Harber is executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton professor of journalism at Wits University.

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