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BOOKS

How the book industry is weathering the COVID-19 storm

Publishing in a pandemic has meant selling online, delivering curbside, touring virtually, being OK with delays, and ‘reinventing the wheel every day’

At Harvard Book Store, the pandemic has been "a learning experience; it feels like reinventing the wheel every day.”
At Harvard Book Store, the pandemic has been "a learning experience; it feels like reinventing the wheel every day.”Harvard Book Store

“In the best of all possible worlds, launching a book is chaos,” said local mystery writer Hank Phillippi Ryan, whose 12th book, “The First to Lie,” came out last month. For all of her previous books, she said, the weeks before publication would include “printing out boarding passes and packing my suitcase” in preparation for a multi-city book tour. This year, however, “it became clear that was not going to happen.”

The book world — an ecosystem that includes authors, publishing houses, production facilities, bookstores, and readers — has been reeling from a year of unprecedented disruption. In the spring, when nobody was quite sure how long quarantine would last, book publishers pushed publication dates into the late summer and fall.

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“Pub dates were changing because there was uncertainty about the marketplace,” said Paul Bogaards, executive vice president and deputy publisher at Knopf. Without knowing whether stores would remain open, or whether consumers would feel comfortable buying books, the most obvious solution was to “hit pause. Delay publications.”

As the months wore on, he added, “publishers have been changing pub dates because of capacity issues.” Some fall titles are being pushed into winter and even spring 2021.

For publishers, Bogaards said, “2020 has been the year of the pivot,” a time of shifting calendars, new work-from-home protocols, and an uncertain consumer landscape. Still, he added, publishing “has proven to be remarkably resilient,” with strong book sales. “Readers are buying books.” The true heroes in this year’s narrative, Bogaards said, “are the men and women working in the supply chain: manufacturing, production, shipping, and inventory management. Authors and agents and editors and publishers owe these folks an enormous debt.”

According to Jim Milliot, editorial director at Publishers Weekly, sales fell at the start of the pandemic, “but not as much as most people had expected. Through August print sales measured by units were up 5.6 percent according to NPD BookScan, much better than everyone expected. Through June the AAP put dollar sales of trade books up about 3 percent. E-book sales are up, but the bigger story is that with e-book sales up and many stores closed, buying has moved pretty rapidly from stores to online, meaning Amazon.”

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Some of the coronavirus side effects have been good for publishing. “People are buying lots of children’s nonfiction for homeschooling and to keep their kids entertained and educated while at home,” Milliot said. “Unless there is a serious surge of the virus and more lockdowns, publishing should make it through OK.” All in all, it’s a busy time for the industry. “There are more books than ever in the market because many spring titles were moved to the fall.”


Author Morgan Jenkins.
Author Morgan Jenkins.Sylvie Rosokoff

Some authors welcomed their new publication dates. Morgan Jerkins, whose second book, “Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots," was rescheduled from May to an August publication, was happy to hear the news. “I was thankful for that,” she said, figuring that she would be able to launch and tour as usual. As time went on, it became clear that would not be the case.

Authors have had to become accustomed to touring virtually — participating in readings on Zoom and other platforms, often in multiple sessions per day. For Ryan, it’s been a largely positive shift. “I’m reaching people I never would have met before, I’m talking to people I never would have encountered before,” she said. “These online platforms allow us to continue to share and for readers to discover new books and authors.”

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Still, said Jerkins, virtual readings have their downsides. “Promoting a book over Zoom, you can’t decompress with anyone.” She misses meeting her readers, lingering in bookstores before and after readings. “I miss the smell of books, I miss being able to peruse,” she said. “I should be thankful. At the same time, I have to hold space for what I’ve lost, what all of us have lost in all this.”

At Harvard Book Store, they're "trying to anticipate what the fall is going to look like . . . trying to find new ways to put books in front of customers.”
At Harvard Book Store, they're "trying to anticipate what the fall is going to look like . . . trying to find new ways to put books in front of customers.”Harvard Book Store

For Rachel Cass, a buyer at Harvard Book Store, the pandemic has been "a learning experience; it feels like reinventing the wheel every day.” Sales are strong, online at least. Readers are still reading, Cass said, and they’re still buying the big books that come along. What she worries about, she said, are the books you only find by browsing a shelf. “The books that are suffering are the books that people would be finding next to the thing that they were looking for.”

In a landscape of constantly shifting parameters, Cass added, “we’re trying to anticipate what the fall is going to look like. We’re trying to find new ways to put books in front of customers.” And the store, which reopened to limited customers (they currently allow 15 in the store at any one time) in July, has learned some lessons that will carry on whenever the pandemic is behind us. “I suspect curbside pickup’s not going away for quite a while, anyway,” she said.

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The book world after COVID-19 in general could include some changes embraced during the pandemic days. Will there ever be old-fashioned book tours again? Ryan isn’t so sure. “From the standpoint of efficiency, of budget, of reach, there’s no question that an online book event has the potential to be much easier than flying around the country,” she said. “I can be in four cities in a day, just home in lipstick, a necklace, and flip-flops.”

One thing won’t change, she said. “Reading is not going to stop, the delight in a good story is not going to stop.”