Hope, home, escapism and reflection: publishing trends of the pandemic

Header showing a photo of banana bread. Credit: Whitney Wright on Unsplash

Despite the surreal drudgery/pressure cooker/Zoom resilience involved in working from home for almost a year, the publishing world has motored on, with many of the big houses (and indies) reporting record performances. Nielsen BookScan estimated the value of the 2020 book market to be up 5.5% on 2019.

So what have people been turning to in the pandemic? How have readers’ interests changed? In amongst the novelty micro-trends surfacing (TikTok sea shanties, anyone? Nostalgic for the #DalgonaCoffee tags of April 2020?), there have been broader themes sweeping in to boost the book industry.

Hope

Ebury’s beautiful The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy was the bestselling title of the year. The kindness and quiet courage wrapped up in the illustrations resonated long before the pandemic was on the horizon (it was the Christmas No.1 in 2019 too), but the hopeful sentiment and universal appeal has been needed more than ever.

This is an example of the wider appetite for books that offer solace, hope and gratitude. While some books were already acquired and some were cast in a new light, we saw new heroes emerge such as Sir Captain Tom Moore reassuring us all that Tomorrow Will Be a Good Day, and an outpouring of support for our health service with Adam Kay editing a charitable bestselling anthology of 100 stories to say thank you to the NHS. Familiar faces have returned to remind us of A Promised Land, a timely release from Barack Obama as the world shifted – looking back as well as forward, reminding us of big picture thinking.

Home

Our home environment has, for many of us, become the hub of our lives – for work, rest and play (and schooling, exercising, virtual socialising… the list goes on). Cooking, cleaning, gardening, interior design, decluttering, pets and crafting are all subjects that have seen sales spikes during the pandemic – and it doesn’t show signs of slowing up in 2021.

Lucky that Mrs Hinch has been on hand to help us take care of that daily grime build-up. More recruits have joined the Hinch army, with This is Me selling 91,389 in its first week of release in October 2020, topping up The Little Book of Lists sales of early lockdown. Now Stacey Solomon is about to show us how to tidy away our worries, with Tap to Tidy topping the Amazon bestseller charts, despite not being released until April. The Style Sisters are also publishing their organisational guide in May. Spring cleaning plus self-care is the order of the day for 2021.

Feeling control over our immediate environment is all too closely linked with our wellbeing right now, and for that we have books such the wonderfully positive Happy Planning, as well as guides like The Home Edit picking up sales (possibly because we can no longer avoid looking at the sheer amount of stuff clogging up our feng shui).

We’ve also come to rely on beaming in some help with other aspects of our home life. Online workouts (good old Joe Wicks), online draw-alongs (creative saviour #DrawWithRob), healthy recipes (Pinch of Nom), a dose of greenery (My Houseplant Changed My Life) and how to train your new BFF (see Graeme Hall’s bestselling All Dogs Great and Small and Easy Peasy Puppy Squeezy) have translated well into the book world.

We’ve gardened, baked, crafted and upskilled our way through the pandemic and people have looked to books for guidance and gifts relating to new-found small pleasures. The joys of comfort food have been appreciated to a greater degree too, with Mary Berry upping sales with Simple Comforts and Nigella’s indulgences really striking a chord with Cook Eat Repeat. Emphasis on the repeat.

Of course, home schooling has been huge for children’s educational titles. You could have tracked school closures just by monitoring the Amazon Top 100 for titles like Writing Workbook.

Escapism

I’m a Lockdowner… Get Me Out of Here! Without holidays, festivals and socialising readers have looked to books to transport themselves to other worlds, immerse themselves in other lives, or forget about the pandemic.

Geordies brought us joy, as Ant & Dec and Chris and Rosie Ramsey stormed the autumn charts. We dreamt along with Cliff Richard. Billy Connolly told us some wee stories and Del Boy served us a nostalgic slice of life. From our living rooms we longed for an invite from Dick and Angel to visit their ultimate lockdown pad (the Christmas bookselling hit A Year at the Chateau was the closest we could get to a bonne vacance). Further afield, Tim Peake took us into the cosmos with Limitless.

Closer to home, we sought the cosy brand of escapism – comedy crime from Richard Osman, fiction favourites became even more popular, and the pub came to us via Jay Flynn. Colouring books enjoyed a resurgence from the heady 2015/16 phenomena days, and people looked outwards to nature to take their mind off the domestic and emotional (fungi, trees and birds in particular). The shared experience of TV seemed to gain more power, with series like Normal People and Bridgerton giving people collective conversational fodder, absorbing drama unrelated to Covid and a desire to read the original books.

Reflection / Self-improvement

Global events were felt intensely, perhaps especially so from our isolated homes. The need to self-educate and take action gained momentum – the Black Lives Matter movement led people to brilliant books by the likes of Reni Eddo-Lodge and Akala, while David Attenborough produced his witness statement on the plight of the planet.

On the flip side of the global consciousness came reflection on a more personal level. Soul-searching, mental health support and intensified scrutiny on our own relationships potentially strengthened sales of Think Like a Monk and Good Vibes Good Life, while family focus boosted titles like The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did). An Instagram post from Adele pointed hundreds of thousands towards the empowering writing of Glennon Doyle.

What next?

As rays of optimism gradually filter into 2021, it’s clear nothing is going to change in an instant and we’ll be feeling the aftershocks for a while to come. Mental health, money, dealing with grief, localism and an increasingly online-first world will shape our habits and needs in the months to come – but so will positivity, climate action and fresh political thinking. And fingers crossed holiday reading will be back on the agenda.  

Emma Smith is Editorial Director at Ebury, acquiring non-fiction for the entertainment list. Follow Emma on Twitter at @1emmasmith.