'We haven't seen anything like it since Harry Potter': UK bookshops report record week


Booksellers up and down the UK are reporting a boom in sales since readers returned to bookshops after the lockdown, with the first avalanche of Christmas titles giving them their best first week of September since records began.

New books from authors including Richard Osman, Elena Ferrante and Raynor Winn helped last week, with 590 hardbacks published on 3 September, dubbed “Super Thursday”. Many of the bestselling titles had been delayed from earlier in the year due to the coronavirus. Trade magazine the Bookseller said it was the best first week of September on record, with the books market making £33.6m over the week to 5 September, an increase of 11.1% on the previous seven days.

Despite stringent social distancing rules, quarantining of books handled by readers and gallons of hand sanitiser, book lovers have been quick to return to shops since they reopened in June: the first week back saw 3.8m print books sold, for £33m, up 31% compared with the same week in 2019. Eight weeks after shops reopened, print book sales were up 9% in volume and 11% in value when compared with 2019, according to the Bookseller.

Osman’s first novel, The Thursday Murder Club – which follows four friends in their 70s who meet once a week to investigate unsolved murders – topped the overall chart this week. The Pointless presenter’s novel sold more than 45,000 copies in just three days on sale, becoming the fastest selling debut crime novel, and the second fastest selling adult debut novel since Nielsen BookScan’s records began.

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“We haven’t seen anything like it since Harry Potter,” said Pat Booth of Plackitt & Booth Bookshop in Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire. Osman, who sold two more books in the series to his publisher Viking this week, said he had been “overwhelmed by the reaction to The Thursday Murder Club, and am so delighted that readers are taking it to their hearts”.

With another 790 new hardbacks due out on 1 October, a second “Super Thursday”, Waterstones’ Kate McHale said that, far from feeling daunted, booksellers are enjoying the deluge, and that sales at the UK’s largest book chain had been very good.

“There were a lot out last week, but there’d been so much anticipation, so much buildup to some of the books, particularly those that had been pushed back, that we were all really looking forward to it. When you open those boxes in store and see the big new titles come in, that’s quite a buzz,” said McHale.

Customer appetite was particularly strong in Waterstones for books including The Secret Barrister’s Fake Law, James Rebanks’s English Pastoral, a history of three generations on a Lake District farm, and Winn’s follow-up to The Salt Path, The Wild Silence.

“Rebanks lives about half an hour away from us and has been a big supporter of the shop, so we had over 350 pre-orders for English Pastoral – it’s been huge for us,” said Elaine Nelson at Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere, Cumbria. “The shop’s been busy, but we’re only open in the afternoons and have a maximum of two people in at a time to meet restrictions, so that does restrict face-to-face sales.”

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At Chepstow Books, owner Matt Taylor said that last week had been the shop’s busiest since Christmas last year, with lots of interest for Osman’s novel, Winn’s memoir and Nobel prize winner Paul Nurse’s What Is Life?. “Super Thursday was brilliant for us. I’d say really it was the Thursday to Sunday, as the publicity on the Thursday drew people into the shop over the weekend with the buzz,” he said.

Taylor, who is preparing for the shop’s first online event on 16 September with Robert Harris, said the biggest challenge of the last six months had been the impossibility of holding events and signings at the shop.

“Things are improving each week. Our age demographic is changing as a lot of locals previously commuted to Bristol or Cardiff but are now walking into town for a lunchtime break. Also UK holidaymakers are out making the most of the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean,” he said. “We are just into Wales so masks aren’t compulsory but over half are wearing them. Social distancing takes place inside, we ask people to hand sanitise and we limit browsing time to 15 minutes which can be a struggle. Bookshop customers are, in virtually every circumstance, societal role models.”

With major new books including Philip Pullman’s Serpentine and JK Rowling’s The Ickabog still to be published this year, McHale at Waterstones said that last week’s Super Thursday was “just the start” of the autumn’s bookselling.

“It’s a marathon not a sprint. There’s some really, really big books still to come,” she said. “But I think people have been glad to get back into bookshops. They’re a very comforting space for a lot of people, and just being able to come back in and browse and pick up their favourites means a lot.”

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