There is often the assumption that the book industry is on its hind legs. Apparently, print books are a dead medium and, with technology taking over as our principal form of entertainment, nobody has the attention span to sit and read anymore. Yet, like most things, the book-selling industry was fundamentally changed by the pandemic. With more time on our hands and reading becoming Tiktok’s latest trend, it’s time to admit that books are seeing an unprecedented revival.

Reading for Pleasure

While the publishing industry itself was not necessarily doing badly pre-pandemic, the same cannot be said for the actual act of reading. In 2019, it was found that only 52.5 per cent of 8-18-year-olds were reading for pleasure — a figure down from 58.8 per cent in 2016. Once hailed as a new way of reading that would revitalise the hobby, recent years have seen the death of E-readers. In 2014, digital content sales fell from £563 million to £554 million. This trend was further echoed by a 17 per cent plunge in digital E-reader sales come 2016. Add to this the ‘death of libraries,’ and sustainable and accessible reading suddenly became harder — especially for young people.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the Internet has monopolised knowledge. Public usage of libraries plummeted in 2016 by 16 per cent, and government spending dropped by 14 per cent. Despite 2019 experiencing a record-breaking year for book sales, this primarily reflected those who had always read, those who were older, and those who had the time to go and sit down with a book. But all this was about to change with something the book world never expected: a pandemic.

New Habits

When the pandemic hit, many of us found ourselves with more free time to do what we want. We took up new hobbies, restarted projects we’d never finished and tried learning something new. But, most importantly, we all seemed to pick up a book. Whether we wanted an escape from the looming crisis or just purely needed to stay entertained, a 2020 survey found that people in the UK had almost doubled their reading time from about 3.5 to six hours a week.

Our new reading habits seem to have continued even after COVID restrictions were lifted. In 2022, bookselling giant Waterstones reported a £42.1 million profit, with sales rising by 6.3 per cent in comparison with 2019/2020. Furthermore, 2022 saw an unprecedented amount of independent bookshops open, with the number climbing to an all-time high of 1,072 independent retailers in the UK and Ireland.

Let’s Talk BookTok

Social media was quick to reflect our reawakened love of reading with a saving grace for print books: ‘BookTok’.  Nowadays, if you walk into any large bookshop, I guarantee there will be a table devoted to the TikTok phenomenon. The movement grew from the pandemic reading surge, with users posting quotes and reviews of their favourite reads. The ‘BookTok’ hashtag currently sits at 103.6 billion views, with hundreds of thousands of creators garnering large followings from their literary content. From Song of Achilles to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, BookTok has become a haven for bibliophiles to passionately share their recommendations.

In 2021, the UK-based publishing house Bloomsbury reported a 220 per cent rise in profits, which boss Nigel Newton partly put down to the ‘absolute phenomenon’ of BookTok. The impact is clear, since BookTok’s emergence in 2020, print sales have seen an increase of 8.9 per cent (that’s approximately 825.7 million books between 2020-21).

Truthfully, the aesthetic of reading may be the real draw for many Gen Zs to join this trend. It’s not uncommon for ‘book influencers’ to be seen posing in front of painstakingly organised and colour-coded bookshelves or swinging their tote bags through aesthetically pleasing bookshops. But, whatever the reason for joining the ranks of bibliophiles, we are most definitely experiencing a reading resurgence.

One niggling aspect is the academic side of reading. Bookshops and publishing companies may have been saved from industry death by a reading revival, yet English Literature has dropped out of the top ten most popular A-levels in 2022 for the first time ever (overtaken by Geography). Will the reading renaissance be enough to stop the ‘spiral of decline’ when it comes to literature? Hard to say. But at least a spark has been lit.

Looking to the future, I fear that BookTok may not be around for much longer. As the trend cycle tirelessly marches along, surely BookTok will soon fall victim to the constantly changing digital space. One thing is for sure though: reading will never become extinct. From the library of Alexandria to teenagers on TikTok crying over Sally Rooney quotes, humanity has always depended on books for comfort, escapism and pure entertainment. BookTok may go out of style, with Tiktokers retiring their never-ending Colleen Hoover collection, but what Cicero once said still holds true:

‘A house without books is like a body without a soul.’

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