In March 2021 there will still be plenty of people asserting bookstores are indispensable. But do publishers really believe that any more?

When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit the UK and lockdown began it seemed like a watershed moment for UK publishing. Sure, online sales would continue, and ebooks would still be available, but without bricks & mortar bookstores…

Do not ask for who the bell tolls.

To imply bookstores might not be the most important part of the publishing food chain was heresy incarnate. Publishing equals bookstores. Online book sales, ebooks and all those other new-fangled nonsensical ways of getting books into consumers hands were just a sideshow. Bookstores were indispensable and every time a store closed its doors was another nail in the coffin of the publishing industry.

Or so we were led to believe by a publishing industry heavily invested in a physical print retail model that had worked tolerably well for countless decades and therefore wasn’t in need of fixing.

Then the British governments (England, Scotland, Wales – it’s a UK devolutionary thing. If you don’t live in the UK don’t even try to make sense of it. It’s barely comprehensible to most Brits!) started closing non-essential businesses, including bookstores, and the ensuing fear and panic in the UK publishing industry was tangible.

Fast forward to the first lockdown lifting and it was unsurprisingly bad news for bookstores, although some had managed to pivot to various semi-digital solutions.

But for publishers, the news was startlingly positive. They were not only selling more books with bookstores closed, but were making more profit.

Then came November and, barely were bookstores readying to make up their losses in the Christmas boom than another lockdown came. And once again bookstores were not deemed essential.

This time the “bookstores are essential” brigade were a little less vocal. After all, if more books were sold during lockdown than before, clearly bookstores were not actually essential. So Boris Johnson did get one thing right in the otherwise disastrous year that was 2020.

And he threw bookstores a much-needed lifeline by letting them open again in December to reap the Christmas trade. So all’s well that ends well.

Except that no sooner had bookstores reopened than Johnson was closing them again. And we’ve now been told they will only reopen on April 12 – after the Easter holiday. And even that is dependent on the Covid-19 situation continuing its current perceived improvement, which leaves a big question mark over when bookstores might really re-open.

Johnson’s projection is that all restrictions will be lifted by July, but that’s based on presumptions that have yet to be tested. The vaccination’s perceived successes in bringing down Covid-19 infection rates need to be tempered by the reality that the country is in full lockdown so of course infection rates are falling. Whether the vaccination programme can hold its own in a society where there are no controls in place is still open to debate.

And also open to debate is how bookstores will fare once they are allowed to re-open in April.

There will of course be a surge in sales as eager bookstore lovers rush to their favourite haunts, but how many more will have succumbed to the charms of online buying and digital reading and decide maybe bookstores aren’t so essential in their lives after all?

And more importantly still, as publishers review their 2020 accounts and look at 2021 Q1 accounts, just how indispensable will bookstores appear to be to publishers as we move through this new decade.

Per a TNPS op-ed in January, UK bookstore retail faces an existential crisis as publishers come to terms with the cruel reality that 2020 was hugely successful for the industry, bookstores aside.

The UK publishing industry begins 2021 buoyant and optimistic, despite British bookstores in yet another lockdown.

Back in March 2020 when the first lockdown hit, there was almost no-one in the industry that would have said that was even conceivable.

Likewise, in March 2020 there was almost no-one would have said bookstores were anything other than indispensable to the industry.

In March 2021 there will still be plenty of people asserting bookstores are indispensable. But do publishers really believe that any more?