Bricks & mortar bookstores face an uphill struggle this year to demonstrate to publishers that they are still as indispensable as they once were.

Lagardère may have seen revenue fall 38% year on year, thanks largely to the continued publisher-resistance to digital in its French homeland, but elsewhere Lagardère’s operations that had taken digital opportunities a little more seriously were reaping the rewards.

Hachette UK CEO David Shelley said,

More people than ever before have turned to books for solace, entertainment, information and learning during the pandemic, and it is our mission to try to retain these readers, and recruit new ones, in the years to come.

Wise sentiments, and Lagardère reports Hachette UK had seen “vigorous” growth in ebooks and audio, alongside online print sales that together gave Hachette UK its “strongest year ever”.

That will be 2020, the year of the pandemic that saw bricks & mortar bookstores closed for much of the year.

Hachette UK’s revenue boost of 9.9% for Lagardère was supplemented by Hachette US reporting revenue up 3.9%

But the contrast with homeland France tells its own story. In France where publisher-resistance to digital sales – ebook, audio and online print, along with high digital prices – meant Hachette France took a 4.3% hit across the year thanks to lockdowns, leaving the company chasing the post-lockdown Christmas period to try salvage something from a bad year.

Per the summary in The Bookseller this week,

E-books accounted for 9.5% of total Lagardère Publishing revenue in 2020 versus 7.7% in 2019, while digital audiobooks represented 4.3% of revenue versus 3.4% in 2019.

From which we can take away two key points: that the much-shouted-about audiobook boom is still is nowhere near matching ebook revenue, and that had Hachette Book Group invested more in expanding its digital reach pre-pandemic the results might have been far better across the board.

US-based Simon & Schuster meanwhile reported record revenues in 2020, up almost 11% on 2019, again against a background of lockdown and bookstore closures.

Anyone beginning to see a pattern here?

Digital formats accounted for 28.5% of Simon & Schuster sales, with S&S UK reported to be “firing on all cylinders“.

In the UK bookstores remain closed, and won’t open before April. Yet we don’t see publishers panicking – or even showing slight signs of concern. And that should be worrying bookstore owners and all the businesses that depend on them.

Per The Bookseller’s report on Hachette UK:

Looking to the future, (Lagardère) said the positive impact on its publishing sales was expected to diminish as cultural and leisure venues reopened. “The favourable mix effect in 2020, led by digital media sales, is expected to diminish and slightly affect profitability in 2021,” it said.

That of course is something that will impact publishers everywhere, but by how much? Probably nowhere near as much as some seem to expect.

Because when all’s said and done music concerts, sports events and cinema trips don’t actually eat into a lot of reading time in people’s lives. Listening to music and watching film and TV does. Yet during long lockdowns we saw books not just hold their own but grow their market share even as people had no option to go to sports events, concerts and cinemas,and were spending more and more time with streamed music and video.

Bricks & mortar booksellers should be thankful that the US and UK publishers have resisted the charms of streaming, which might have seen publisher revenues rise still further.

As it is, bricks & mortar bookstores face an uphill struggle this year to demonstrate to publishers that they are still as indispensable as they once were.