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Books and corona: end of an era, or the start of a better one?

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

Photo: Lubos Houska via Pixabay

“Das Lesungsjahr 2020 ist völlig anders verlaufen, als wir uns das vorgestellt oder gewünscht hätten“ (The Lesungsjahr 2020 took place in a completely different way to what we could have imagined or hoped for"), admits Jürgen Bost, one of the speakers at the St. Ingberter Literaturforum.

Upon first glance, it would be hard to disagree with him. Literary exhibitions such as the Lesungsjahr, which boasts an impressive line-up of authors and guest speakers, have all been impacted by the pandemic to some extent. The book and publishing industries have been yet another casualty in the ongoing car crash that is the COVID-19 pandemic, which is currently ravaging Europe and forcing Germany to extend their national lockdown. Bookshops in nearly all German Bundesländer have had to shut their doors once more, whilst still reeling from the repercussions of last year’s closures and the cancellation of book fairs, public readings, and literary festivals.

In light of these seismic shifts, and the omnipresent monopoly of the likes of Amazon, it is rather difficult to find the positives amongst such chaos. However, in times of great challenge, there is also hope. Indeed, there are flickers of economic growth, immense creativity, and innovation within the industry, as well as renewed interest in literature on the part of readers. So how exactly has the coronavirus pandemic affected the German book industry? And can we even see it as a catalyst for change?

The closure of shops is something with which we are now all too familiar, and despite its relatively low figures of infection last spring, Germany is by no means an exemption. From March 23rd to April 19th, bookshops were closed in all states, with the exception of Berlin and Saxony-Anhalt, marking a decrease in sales by as much as 65.7% in comparison to the previous year. The figures are hardly surprising, as it is reported that approximately half of all book sales take place in store. Even with the lifting of restrictions in late spring, the general anxiety and hesitancy amongst the public, alongside the ongoing nature of the pandemic, ensured that reopening was by no means business-as-usual. Hygiene measures had to be put in place, and with this came the cost of materials and the additional time and effort required, whilst all the while businesses were trying to compensate for the footfall lost during closures.

Meanwhile, small publishing firms were themselves encountering their own problems. Whilst normally heavily reliant on public events such as book fairs, festivals, and readings, they were facing the tremendous challenge of having to market new titles from a position of relative anonymity. Even media forms such as the Feuilleton, frequently used to boost the reputation of new releases, were suddenly overshadowed by other news stories, most notably the greatest crisis since the Second World War

The drop in coronavirus cases experienced by Europe in the summer did seem to mark a more hopeful – albeit temporary - period of respite for the German book industry; book events and readings which had previously been cancelled now took place in large, open-air formats, drawing in promising numbers without flouting health advice.

However, with the recrudescence of the virus and the introduction of “Lockdown light” in the autumn, Germany’s book market was once again facing immense upheaval. What is often considered the highlight of the publishing calendar, the Frankfurt Book Fair, was converted to an online format in October and faced rather mixed reviews, with some users reporting difficulties in accessing and creating meetings, with many opting to organise virtual ones outside of the platform. The Literaturfest in Munich was also cancelled, and its content halved when transferred to its digital replacement, the Bücherschau.

Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo: KJohansson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet in spite of this reduction, the overall picture is rather more complex, with the virtual Munich Bücherschau also opening up new horizons and exemplifying the commendable resilience, adaptability and creativity of those working in the industry. The online platform enabled users to access virtual exhibitions of the latest publications, modelled on the physical stands which would normally be set up, complete with presentation videos, trailers, and copies to sample. Authors were still involved via virtual meetings, and the new format also meant branching out to a wider – and most notably younger – audience, with schools and young people able to send in questions and requests to writers. The organisers even argued that the digital format may be something worth considering post-corona, suggesting that it would reduce superfluous international travel, whilst enabling engagement from broader markets and from those who would normally feel unable to leave their own home.

Independent bookshops have themselves also demonstrated similar adaptability and creativity, with many utilising deliveries by bike and social media platforms to boost their local sales. Their success arguably lies in the personable, quaint, and individualistic approach to their work – three characteristics which corporate giants struggle to replicate.

It would therefore seem that the indoor life to which so many of us have become accustomed is giving German publishers, sellers, and writers food for thought, but they are not the only ones. The general public is also engaging more with literature of a variety of genres, and the reasons are multi-fold.

On the one hand, the increased free time indoors, along with a desire for mental escapism has fuelled our need for entertainment and fiction. On the other hand, many of us are rediscovering old hobbies, or finding new ones, turning to the realms of non-fiction for further inspiration. Die Zeit reported last month that sales of cookery books, titles related to walking and cycling, as well as children’s titles (undoubtedly fuelled by ongoing school closures and subsequent concerns about pedagogical development) have rocketed, whilst the popularity of foreign travel books has unsurprisingly somewhat diminished.

Despite the economic challenges which lie ahead for the German book industry as it attempts to navigate an ever-turbulent and highly unpredictable market, it is vital we recognise that not all hope is lost. Behind all of the closures, hygiene measures, online events, and economic hardship, there is also remarkable determination and a fundamental belief in the importance of literature and culture. Long may that continue.

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