A new survey has revealed that people in the UK have almost doubled the amount of time they spend reading books since lockdown began, but instead of dystopian fiction readers are turning to the “comfort” of crime and thrillers.
Nielsen Book’s research found that 41% of people said they were reading more books since Boris Johnson imposed the measures on 23 March. According to the nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults, surveyed from 29 April to 1 May, the nation has also increased the amount of time it spends reading books from around 3.5 hours per week, to six. Just 10% of adults said they were reading less.
Readers also revealed their tastes have changed since the outbreak of Covid-19, with their interest in crime and thrillers, and other popular fiction, increasing. There was “currently little appetite” for dystopian fiction, said Nielsen.
More than half (52%) of the respondents said they were reading more because they had more spare time, 51% said it was because they wanted to stay entertained, and 35% felt books were providing “an escape from the crisis”.
Louise Doughty, who is longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier crime novel of the year for her thriller Platform Seven, was not surprised at the increased interest in crime fiction, saying it was “a mistake to assume that during difficult times people want light, escapist reading or heartwarming tales”.
“People want to be absorbed,” she said, “that means they’ll go for any book where there’s a story that will pull them in and hold their attention. Crime and thriller fiction, that broadest of categories, is all about that, even if it does it through the medium of tales where people do some very dark things.”
Despite these dangerous undercurrents, they are genres where mysteries are resolved, Doughty continued, “and we could all do with a bit of that at the moment. The dark thing happens but there is often resolution and/or explanation at the end. In Platform Seven, I couldn’t have my narrator ghost arise from the dead but there is a strong sense at the end of the book that the dead never really leave us – if we loved them, they live on in our hearts. Paradoxically, dark books can often be the most uplifting of all.”
When Peter May wrote his thriller Lockdown in 2005, publishers thought the scenario imagining London shut down by bird flu was too far-fetched. But May, who has donated his advance to those on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus, has seen sales soar since it was published last month.
“I think that crime fiction represents a comforting return to the values we sometimes feel we have lost – where the forces of good win out (almost invariably) over the forces of evil,” he said. “And that is particularly relevant at a time when our world and everything familiar to us seems to have been turned upside down.”
Readers seem to be finding comfort in his story of a world eerily similar to our own, May continued: “When first written it was thought that readers would not be able to identify with a world in which society has battened down the hatches against a deadly pandemic. Sadly, it has now become an only too familiar scenario. Oddly, people seem to take comfort from that, too – a familiar and common experience with which they can identify, as opposed to the ‘old’ normal, where people kissed and embraced and shook hands, and which now feels uncomfortably past tense.”
Despite the clear increase in time spent reading, the survey found that changes in book buying were more evenly matched. While 25% said they had increased purchases, 18% had bought less, with most respondents citing their inability to visit bookshops as the reason for this decline.
Waterstones said its own sales reflected Nielsen’s survey, with fiction and crime dominating its bestsellers, including Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. According to Waterstones’ Bea Carvalho, success during lockdown is driven by qualities that were important long before the pandemic.
“Our customers seem to be responding to recommendations for excellent, engaging storytelling across genres,” Carvalho said. “Thankfully, there have been plenty of fantastic new books to share during this period which have spoken to our need for escapist, compelling fiction.”