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With Millions Trapped At Home, Books Are Back, Baby!

It may be half a world away, but the belated and successful initial public offering (IPO) of Australia’s largest online bookseller this week has sent investors and industry watchers alike scrambling to figure out exactly what the heck is going on in an industry that has seen more than its share of ups and downs in recent years.

The trading debut of Booktopia, which has been in business for 16 years, follows failed attempts to go public in 2019 and 2016 and points to changing consumer taste and evolving lifestyles that have emerged as a result of the global pandemic.

“We are expecting our biggest Christmas ever, and with the ability to process up to 60,000 book sales a day, we will be able to satisfy more customers,” Booktopia CEO Tony Nash told reporters after ringing the opening bell at the stock exchange in Sydney Thursday. Nash said the company’s revenues were on track to grow 28 percent this year, following similar growth last year. Booktopia currently has about a 6 percent share of Australian book sales, a $2.5 billion marketplace that has roughly a 60-40 split between retail and online sales.

Deputy CEO and CTO Wayne Baskin told Australia’s trade publication Power Retail that the coronavirus response in the market continues to evolve.

“At Booktopia, we have seen how people have ridden out COVID-19 through the books they have bought and how this changed as it has progressed,” Baskin said.

For the company itself, the biggest challenge brought on by COVID has not been meeting the increase in demand, it’s been managing employees who have been required to work remotely.

Baskin said the early days of sheltering in place saw shoppers buying books and media to entertain themselves or their kids, paired with a complete drop-off in travel books.

“Then as the pandemic went on, people wanted to make better use of their time, and we saw a lot of non-fiction and lifestyle books being bought,” Baskin told Power Retail.

Since then, demand for cookbooks has soared and second language learning guides have spiked, as have books about learning to play piano as well as domestic travel guides to accommodate local road trips rather than excursions abroad.

Baskin also said Booktopia has been selling more fancy backdrop books that look nice on shelves, desks or tables in the background of Zoom calls.

According to Publisher’s Weekly, an uptick in big-name bestsellers and rising interest in social justice drove sales this summer, leading to a 6.4 percent year-on-year increase in print unit sales or the nine months ended Oct. 3, 2020. However, PW points out that segments such as juvenile nonfiction have grown almost five times as fast as parents have tried to prevent their kid’s minds from going to mush as they contend with distance learning.

Schools And eBooks

To be sure, the pandemic has clearly taken a toll on small, independent bookstores that rely on foot traffic and familiar customers to make ends meet. According to the American Booksellers Association, which represents hundreds of the industry’s neighborhood bookstores, 52 members have gone under since the start of the pandemic, and as much as 20 percent could disappear by year’s end.

That said, other segments of the book business are having record years.

With students of all ages taking classes remotely, the demand for digital textbooks or eBooks has literally been unprecedented, as colleges and libraries and even business training manuals have all exponentially increased their purchases.

Nowhere is this eBook surge more pronounced than in Asia where “China E-book Hub” has seen a 10-fold increase in exported digital book sales since February, and a 20x jump in sales to institutional customers.

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