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Book sales tick up: Improving reading culture or Covid effect?

By Peter Theuri | Dec 28th 2021 | 4 min read
By Peter Theuri | December 28th 2021

On Goodreads, a site where book lovers find and read their favourite titles, there is a book titled “Wanna Hide Something from a N*gga, Put It in a Book”.

The author, D Haynes, writes: “I, D Haynes, The Author, wrote a book for and about the US, the Black community, and the title of this book is Wanna Hide Something from a N*gga, Put It in a Book. And that's exactly what I did. I gathered the things that they wanna hide from a "n*gga," and I put it in a book.”

The book, he says, is a self-help book for the Black community who, we would assume, he was not sure would read it, anyway.

But while a few are castigated for not reading enough, it seems a whole lot of us have to be nudged into reading by external factors.

The Economist reported towards the end of 2020 that the year had been one of the finest for print books in the United States, thanks to Covid-19. Since 2004, no year had seen as high book sales across the country.

“Sales of e-books and audiobooks had double-digit growth in the 12 months to the end of September, compared with a year earlier, but sales of print books grew too, by nearly seven per cent,” said the magazine.

The world was shaken in 2020. The fast-spreading Covid-19 shattered supply chains forced companies to close and led to people living off crumbs. Travel was restricted as public gatherings were prohibited.

As a result, people had a lot of time on their hands and often too little to do with it. They needed distraction.

While some went into video games and other forms of entertainment, others ordered their favourite books and read them. Consequently, in such markets, the book markets flourished.

“The pandemic bolstered the case for books as an alluring, enduring form of entertainment and education. Print books and audiobooks offer respite for screen-weary souls, both young and old,” wrote The Economist.

“The debuts of many political books, including the first volume of Barack Obama’s memoirs, and the nationwide protests for racial justice, which drove curious readers to older non-fiction titles on race and civil rights, were further boons for book-buying.”

Locally, there was not much change witnessed in 2020. Gabriel Dinda, the founder of The Writers Guild Kenya, says there was little change in the number of print books they sold that year.

This, he quickly adds, was not a result of people’s dislike for reading.

“It was because of reduced earnings, I would say. People wanted books but could only read what they could easily access and afford. Sharing of pdf books increased in the year,” he says.

But in 2021, the trend changed. The sales started going up, with online sales outstripping those of hard copies.

The Writers Guild Kenya Dial a Book service recorded a significant increase in business.

Dial a Book is a service through which a customer fills in the details of the book they would like to read and the bookseller looks for the title. It saves the customer the trouble of visiting stores looking for books.

Kenya Publishers Association Chairman Lawrence Njagi, also the founder of Mountain Top Publishers, says there was an increase in the number of children’s books sold.

As they were holed in with their parents due to a long period of schools’ closure, children were kept busy with storybooks.

“But there was no change in the sales of adult books,” he says. “We continue to have a very poor reading culture.”

Mr Njagi notes some people exchanged soft copy reads, which he says is alright if it was done legally.

“But some of these people did not read the books they sought from their friends,” he says. “The sharing of books might not have translated to the readership.”

He agrees with Dinda, that there's a need to improve Kenya's reading culture.

“A reading culture can be defined as the uptake of reading as a regular activity and the cultivation of skills and attitudes that make reading a pleasurable activity,” wrote Dr Robert Wesonga, who teaches Literature at the University of Kabianga.

“When it gets adopted and practised regularly, reading has benefits that accrue to an individual, and the society at large. Besides making a reader enjoy a great latitude of information and knowledge, reading also improves memory, discipline, vocabulary, creativity, and writing skills.”

Njagi says books should be taken closer to the people. “Even supermarkets should have libraries,” he says. “Like the rest of the family shop, someone could borrow a book.”

Markets in the village, and shopping centres too, should also have libraries.

In Kenya, in an election year, people will probably be seeking to interact with history. Booksellers who have relevant titles may just be lucky.

In the meantime, the popularity of e-books remains higher than that of print alternatives.

Covid 19 Time Series


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