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A ‘Booker bounce’, more BookTok joy, and a schoolbooks crisis for Irish booksellers in hectic year

After a royal start to 2023, retailers are now poised for the Christmas gift-buying rush. If only everything that happened in between had gone so well

Christmas custom has arrived “in waves” at Greystones children’s bookshop Halfway Up the Stairs, interspersed this year with “lovely messages” for owner Trish Hennessy and her team. As the frosted window lettering announces to passersby, this is the newly crowned An Post Irish bookshop of the year.

“It’s a huge win for us. We’re only four years old and the fact that we are a specialist children’s bookshop makes it even more special,” says Hennessy.

Because children’s books are cheaper, a shop dedicated to just this quarter of the market must rack up higher sales volumes to make the same money as a general bookshop. To boost year-round income, she offers a tailored book-a-month subscription service, helps local schools spend their library grants and – like many bookshop owners – operates a packed calendar of in-store events.

“We do have to sell a lot of books to keep going,” she says.

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Selling a lot of books is something that the Irish market has been collectively skilled at over the past decade. Last year saw the eighth consecutive annual increase in the volume of books sold in the Irish market, with the value of sales climbing to a record €169.6 million.

This year, strong first-half sales – kick-started by January’s frenzied demand for Prince Harry’s memoir Spare – have dissipated to slower autumn volumes, meaning booksellers need a decent Christmas to match the 13.4 million books that Nielsen BookScan estimates were sold last year.

“October and November have been down slightly in volume and in value, but I think the market will end close to flat on last year,” says Eason head of books Davina Milligan.

Volumes in 2022 were 20 per cent ahead of 2019. Even if they come in lower this year, it will only be by 1-2 per cent, while the pipeline of titles in the first half of 2024 is “promising”, she says.

“It’s very positive that the interest in the market and in reading has held. We’re very happy to see that.”

Prices have risen this year, but consumer research suggests books are low down the list of items people will forego if their disposable income shrinks, while their tangibility also makes them perennially popular gifts.

“Who doesn’t love a book?”

The pandemic reshaping of retail patterns means Eason, which has more than 50 outlets, has recorded a footfall decline in its city centre stores, but a pickup in shopping centres such as those around the M50 in Liffey Valley, Swords, Blanchardstown and Dundrum, which Milligan says are “very key to the estate”.

The big growth channel, however, has been online, which now accounts for about a quarter of Eason’s book volume, up from a pre-Covid 10 per cent.

Likewise, at Eason-owned Dubray, online sales have gone from representing less than 1 per cent of revenue to “7-8 per cent and growing”, says general manager Maria Dickenson. Amazon’s move in April to axe The Book Depository, a site “known much more for their range and quality” than Amazon itself, has seen some of that business transfer to Irish-owned sites, she says.

But Dubray, a 50-year old company acquired by Eason in 2020, has stepped up its offline expansion too: its new store in Waterford is its 13th. Post-pandemic, Irish readers have extra appreciation for “all the discovery and serendipity that comes with a physical bookshop”, Dickenson believes.

Certainly, any lingering dent on city-centre vibrancy didn’t put Dubray off signing a 10-year lease on Dublin’s Mary St earlier this year, with the unit following a sort of temporary trial in the nearby Ilac Centre that “went well”.

A late-noon opening on Black Friday, the day after the Dublin riots, didn’t help, of course, but trade became steadily brisker over that final November weekend, says Dickenson: “It’s always all to play for in the last four to six weeks.”

While Dubray’s top-seller for 2023 is Joseph O’Connor’s novel My Father’s House, Prince Harry’s Spare is the current Irish market leader with 37,000 copies sold. Closing in on the prince’s total is Liz Nugent’s Strange Sally Diamond with sales of more than 35,000. Thanks to Nugent’s established thriller-queen reputation and the book’s striking yellow cover, it is still selling, and among Irish booksellers – who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with Irish authors – there is hope she will overtake Harry-mania.

Colleen Hoover’s romance It Ends With Us, which emerged from the #BookTok phenomenon (when books go viral on TikTok), was the top title of 2022, and although Hoover enthusiasm has subsided for now, #BookTok – which occupies several shelves in Eason’s O’Connell Street store – is “still a brilliant part of what’s happening in the market”, says Milligan.

Dickenson reports that teenagers often come into Dubray shops in groups of seven or eight to each buy a copy of a #BookTok title they all want to read simultaneously.

“The last time we saw anything like this was in the Twilight era.”

Because #BookTok is mostly driven by organic, unpredictable peer recommendations, rather than publisher interventions, booksellers don’t know if the breakout hits will be new books or backlist ones.

“Certain things bubble up and we try very hard to stay on top of them,” says Dickenson.

Even beyond #BookTok, word of mouth can send books on unanticipated sales trajectories: the paperback of Gabrielle Zevin’s work-and-friendship themed novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is one example, with its games-industry setting perhaps attracting some non-typical fiction readers.

“Normally, sales will be front-ended in the first three to six months, then there’s not a lot after that. But Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is still going,” says Dickenson, who adored the book.

Fiction-wise, the current heavy-hitters include Marie Cassidy’s first crime novel Body of Truth, Claire Keegan’s So Late in the Day and the “two Pauls”, Lynch and Murray, who are delivering a much-appreciated “Booker bounce” to Irish shops.

Some of this Booker Prize bonus is still to come. Would-be purchasers of either the winner, Lynch’s Prophet Song, or the shortlisted and pre-ceremony favourite, Murray’s The Bee Sting, might have found the titles elusive of late as they are in the process of reprinting.

Irish authors Paul Murray (left) and Paul Lynch who were named on Booker Prize 2023 shortlist

“Our stores are quite light [on Prophet Song] at the moment, as is everybody, but we will have that in. That’s landing, that’s imminent, and I expect it will do exceptionally well this Christmas,” said Milligan on Monday.

Non-fiction standouts, meanwhile, include Britney Spears’s autobiography The Woman in Me and Rozanna Purcell’s The Hike Life: 50 Favourite Hikes in Ireland, with Liam Brady’s Born to Be a Footballer: My Autobiography the front-runner in sport.

This year’s gift tables are not shy of Irish-published titles. Dear Gay: Letters to the Gay Byrne Show, compiled by the broadcaster’s daughter Suzy Byrne, is “a beautiful book”, says Milligan, while Dickenson mentions the “fantastic array” of history titles including History of Ireland in Maps by Pat Liddy, Dublin: Mapping the City by Joseph Brady and Paul Ferguson and The Lamplighters of Phoenix Park by Donal Fallon.

This all sounds wonderful, and it is. But the world of Irish book retail has also endured a darker chapter this year. Headline general market sales trends belie the common narrative of bookshops being on the verge of closure, but for many businesses, that’s not merely a narrative, it’s the reality.

Eight bookshops across the country have closed in 2023, according to trade body Bookselling Ireland, and their common denominator was that they used to sell schoolbooks – this was the first year of the Government’s free primary schoolbooks scheme.

“It has been a completely different year for bookshops that sell schoolbooks and bookshops that don’t sell schoolbooks,” says Dawn Behan, who chairs Bookselling Ireland and owns Woodbine Books in Kilcullen, Co Kildare. Indeed, both Hennessy and Dickenson say they are “lucky” not to be in this end of the business.

Behan says she is “shocked” by the number of closures and now fears that many more shops will be shuttered in the new year. Most of the eight occurred in the autumn – a deeply unusual time for a bookshop to shut down – with the extension of the scheme to the second-level junior cycle in Budget 2024 likely to have prompted some to take the view that their business model has just gone.

“It is a great scheme, it’s just that it has consequences for bookshops that were not foreseen by the Department of Education,” says Behan.

Some shops have lost out completely. Others may have won low-margin quotes to supply schools in their area, yet still missed out on summer footfall under the new arrangements – Woodbine, which supplied five small local schools this year, is among them.

“It was a chance to get people through the door and then they see what else you have,” says Behan.

No one involved in schoolbooks was immune: Eason told shareholders in September that it had incurred a €2.5 million revenue hit, with chairman David Dilger describing the back-to-school landscape as “radically altered”.

But it is among those independent and small chains that were, in effect, schoolbooks businesses disguised as general bookshops where an existential threat now hovers.

“Schoolbooks keep the door open,” says Bookselling Ireland committee member Cian Byrne. Two of his four bookshops are located on university campuses, while one caters to tourists at Kilmainham Gaol. But at the Maynooth Bookshop, “easily two-thirds” of his turnover is affected.

He admits it’s “a hard one” to gain sympathy for, as the scheme obviously works for parents and the Department of Education. But even last summer, after supplying half the schools he quoted, he had to cut the additional staff he took on from 13 to eight. Stationery sales, “all that ancillary stuff”, went to supermarkets instead.

Next year will be trickier still, as primaries “now have the books”, while he doesn’t have the capacity to supply the Education and Training Boards (ETBs) that will run the tenders for large groups of secondary schools.

“It’s a long year from Christmas to Christmas,” he says.

Christmas time is ‘make or break’ for booksellers

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Byrne is trying to be optimistic. Christmas Day has a “weird run-in” because it’s on a Monday, meaning he will have no deliveries on the final weekend and Friday will be “touch and go”. But this means the point at which consumers stop ordering online and start shopping locally should come earlier too.

As for schoolbooks, he is searching for an opportunity amid the crisis, saying he won’t miss the energy, time and shop space they demanded and will be monitoring how his freshly expanded kids’ section performs over Christmas.

“I saw a kid leaning against a shelf reading and I thought ‘that’s exactly what I want to see’.”

Still, Byrne is frustrated by the absence of Government recognition for bookshops’ role. An approach to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on the impact of the schoolbooks scheme went nowhere – “we’ve been told it’s a Department of Education issue, which is fine, but it’s not” – while the Department of Culture “don’t see us as players” in the cultural events sector, meaning there is “no engagement” and no funding.

Both Behan and Byrne are also alarmed by what Byrne calls the EU’s “bizarre” proposal for new late-payment rules, which will make interest and fines mandatory after 30 days. This makes “no sense” for bookshops that stock titles on a sale-or-return basis, often for 60 or 90 days.

“We’re the small guy giving the big guy money, not the other way around,” says Byrne. The upshot, Bookselling Ireland warns, is that shops will take fewer risks on stock.

Notwithstanding these “very, very grey clouds on the horizon”, Byrne says Ireland is “lucky to have such a vibrant literary community” and believes he has no option but to find ways to replace lost turnover.

“I don’t want not to be a bookseller,” he says.

Behan, a former software developer who opened Woodbine in 2016 after taking voluntary redundancy, has no regrets about her career pivot.

“I’ve never looked back – I love it,” she says. “You never get customers who are complaining. You see signs in other shops ‘please do not abuse the staff’. We never have to do that. You become part of the fabric of the town.”

She anticipates the half-day of Christmas Eve will be her busiest of the year, as people home for the holidays buy last-minute presents rather than weigh down their luggage. Kildare-based authors Miriam Mulcahy, author of memoir This Is My Sea, and Hazel Gaynor, whose most recent historical novel is The Last Lifeboat, are selling well at Woodbine, she adds, while the Discover Irish Kids Books campaign spearheaded by author Sarah Webb has lifted the fortunes of Irish children’s books.

Back in Greystones at Halfway Up the Stairs, where Webb is the events manager, Hennessy has arranged a display of the trio of children’s and YA winners at the Irish Book Awards: Black & Irish: Legends, Trailblazers & Everyday Heroes by Leon Diop and Briana Fitzsimons; I Am the Wind: Irish Poems for Children Everywhere edited by Lucinda Jacob and Webb; and The President’s Dog by Peter Donnelly. A poster advertises Donnelly’s new book, Little Wolf, about a pup trying to find his voice.

“The books that we put front-and-centre are the ones that we truly believe in,” says Hennessy.

She opened the shop in 2019 “after eight years of dreaming and eight months of planning”, only for the unwelcome plot twist of lockdown to unfold five months later. The dream outlived the stress and now Hennessy recognises the same loyal grandparents returning each Christmas.

So far, its mission “to find the right book for the right child” has been going well enough for the shop to reduce its games and toys stock, she says. Still, after Covid, war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis, she will take nothing for granted.

“A bookshop is an important asset to a town and people value that. But like any other retail business, we are exposed to global events. We would say that we have never had a normal year.”