Covid’s Latest Victim: Textbooks

As students head back to school this month and countries around the world cobble together education systems for the fall with Zoom and duct tape, the increase in distance learning and home schooling appears to be hurting trade in what’s become a core technology: textbooks.

Officially counted under national tariff codes such as 4901990010 (U.S.) and 49019930 (Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia), textbooks imports have been sagging around the world, according to Trade Data Monitor.

Shipments to the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Turkey, and to nearly every country that measures textbook imports, have plummeted.

In the U.S., for example, shipments in the first seven months of 2020 shrank 32.1% to $88.9 million from $130.9 million over the same period in 2019.

Textbook sales have suffered, with exports dropping in countries from Norway to Saudi Arabia. For example, textbook exports from the United States, the world’s second largest exporter of books, fell 23.8% to $176.3 million in the first seven months of the year.

Ironically, the decline is not part of a systemic trend. Despite advances in high-tech learning, teachers and students still use lots of textbooks. In 2000, over the same period, U.S. textbook imports amounted to only $160.1 million.

Textbook Imports; Millions USD; January-July 2019, January-July 2020; United States (4901990010); Canada (4901990021, 4901990022); Turkey (490199001000, 490199004011); Qatar (49019930); Bahrain (49019930); Norway (49019902, 49019905); Source: Trade Data Monitor LLC; September 14, 2020

There are only a few outliers in this textbook import bust, including New Zealand and Norway, which have allowed children back in classrooms, and Saudi Arabia, which has emphasized distance learning instead.

Meanwhile, trade in high-tech goods, including computers, smart phones, and webcams, is surging.

It may be premature to declare the death of the textbook, but it’s yet another pre-pandemic custom that will have some catching up to do.