Sunday 25 February 2018

Why we're turning over a new leaf

It seems that eReaders are just a novel idea after all, as literature fans still like the feel of a book

Thriller: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike browse books in the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl
Thriller: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike browse books in the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl
Emma Watson has set up her own book club
Graham Norton is the favourite to host revamped Blind Date

Tanya Sweeney

Book fans in Ireland have never had it so good. We're fast approaching a golden age of Irish literature, with a new wave of home-grown writers shining on the world stage.

There are literature and arts festivals packed into the year, affording fans the opportunity to get up close and personal with their literary heroes. The children's and Young Adult sector in particular is enjoying a purple patch. And thanks to book clubs, radio/TV initiatives and literacy groups across the land, the book chatter is louder than ever.

Booksellers have recorded a bumper revenue for 2016. Sales rose 9pc to 11 million over the last year. According to Nielsen, food, diet and health books jumped over 30pc last year, while one of the fastest-growing categories was humour, showing a 37pc rise in sales.

Not too long ago, there were fears that the publishing industry might befall the same fate as the music industry, which was famously decimated as new technologies pushed out old favourites like vinyl and CDs. And in addition to the eReader, books have had to compete with a whole host of new pastimes and amenities; gaming, the smartphone, social media, the Hollywood blockbuster.

Emma Watson has set up her own book club
Emma Watson has set up her own book club

So what exactly has Ireland reading again?

While it is partly due to the fact that more retailers are reporting their book sales to Nielsen, resulting in the swell of numbers, industry insiders have noticed an upswing in book popularity.

Says David O'Callaghan, book category manager at Eason: "A lot of people have come back to the big releases like Girl On The Train and Graham Norton's book Holding. There have been strong movie tie-ins - about 40 movies being made from books this year. You also have influencers like Joe Wicks writing books and fronting big campaigns.

"Wicks in particular proved that if you get a big character with personality, you can transform a whole category of books like the food/fitness merge," adds Alan Johnston, group marketing manager at Eason.

"Authors like Pippa O'Connor and (vlogger) Tanya Burr bring in people who might not ordinarily read books. These authors live their lives online and have an online presence, but it's creating a physical sale for us."

Michael McLoughlin, MD at Penguin Ireland, admits that the sales figures come in the wake of a 'perfect storm'.

Graham Norton is the favourite to host revamped Blind Date
Graham Norton is the favourite to host revamped Blind Date

"Firstly, there's the quality of the books out there… last year was particularly strong for titles," he says. "I think a number of big titles get people through the bookshop doors and once they're there, they tend to look around."

In an age of social isolation, research by the Reader Organisation in the UK suggests that group reading can help with mental health issues, improve self-confidence, and widen horizons.

It's certainly something that broadcaster Rick O'Shea can attest to: in just a few short years, the Rick O'Shea Book Club has grown from a few book fans to a 5,000-strong membership.

"We have two events in the next six weeks and five within the year," he explains. "These are real world events and when you create this space for people, they develop a sort of support network for their habit. It becomes a loop of recommendations. And when you hear people say 'you should really read this book', people buy more and more." It's this word of mouth that has helped to grease sales of physical books, whether it's from a friend or an A-lister like Emma Watson, who runs the popular online book club 'Our Shared Shelf'.

"Awards play a large part too, and if a book wins a major award, as so many new Irish authors have done recently, it does mean that the risk for the ordinary, impartial reader is reduced," says McLoughlin.

Of book fans' return to physical books, O'Shea adds: "For people like me, who have that fetish for paper, they remember reading books under the covers as kids, and that continues throughout their lives. If you're on screens all day, books are a means of decompression."

According to O'Callaghan, the eReader phenomenon has 'plateaued' in the last year.

"The technology in the eReader hasn't changed a lot itself in the last while, although it was a revolutionary product a few years ago," says Johnston. "It's seen as something that's been around for a while, which is maybe why the market has switched back to physical books." Adds McLoughlin: "People aren't encouraged to upgrade their reading device the way you might with an iPhone." Yet in the face of the eReader's might, bookshops and publishers were moved to up their game.

"I think a lot of publishers made their books more aesthetically pleasing," says Johnston. Many retailers aimed to make a visit to a bookshop a more inclusive, engaging experience.

"Bookshops in Ireland have worked hard to attract people by opening coffee shops, having events and making them a destination to browse and hang out in," says McLoughlin.

Eason struck gold with its Department 51 and Deptcon ventures; the former a comic/pop culture emporium within the store, the latter a Young Adult conference.

"This goes back to when the recession hit," says O'Callaghan. "We were aware that the digital revolution could do us in. We started creating standalone events, and they've been a huge success: Graham Norton appeared in the Mansion House and took off after that, selling around 60,000 copies."

For those who got out of the habit, just drop into your local store or library. "Simply say, 'I'm looking for something to wean me back on to the habit of reading', and a staffer is guaranteed to give you a fast-paced or gripping read," says Susan Walsh of Dubray Books.

"Anyone who commutes to work should have a book or audiobook for a long journey home. Take it from me, reading is the best way to switch off and forget about what happens during the day."

Irish Independent

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