The COVID-19 pandemic has affected so many industries, and unfortunately left millions of people without jobs.
While the overall impact on the global economy has been negative, there are some industries that are faring better than others during these tough times.
When it comes to the publishing industry, the crisis seems to yield a mixed bag of results.
COVID-19 and the Publishing Industry
On the one hand, there are reports of book sales surging during the lockdown, as many individuals are stuck at home and looking for entertainment or ways to expand their knowledge and skillsets.
At the same time, there are also reports that a “majority of small publishers” in places like the UK fear closure, as this Guardian article claims.
If we consider the continuing rise of ebooks, audiobooks, and online retailers, it makes sense how sales could continue to go up, while many traditional retailers—especially smaller, independent booksellers—are being pushed out of business.
What’s clear is that many sectors of the publishing industry are finding that they will have to adapt or evolve in some way if they want to persist through this pandemic and its aftermath.
Meeting New Demands
Let’s take a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting different areas of the publishing industry, from book orders to the readers themselves.
The rise of the ebook sparked an ongoing debate among book lovers. (You know, the one about whether the benefits of a convenient, easily transportable Kindle could outweigh the feel and smell of a good old paperback?)
Yet it seemed for a long time that neither camp could be easily swayed. You’re either a print loyalist, or an ebook enthusiast—with print books maintaining a steady lead as of 2019.
But COVID-19 is currently presenting the print industry with significant challenges, while ebook sales have flourished. With the widespread closures of libraries, bookshops, and schools, year-over-year print sales have taken a 10% dip from 2019.
And unfortunately, the consequences of this decline are affecting the authors, publishers, and bookstores that depend on the sale of print books.
One way of countering those effects has been through online sales, which just might be the savior of print books.
Of course, online retailers of all kinds of products are generally faring much better than their brick-and-mortar counterparts during this time.
Bookshop.org is a website that supports local, independent bookstores. Shoppers can find a specific shop to support, in which case that store will receive 100% of the profit. Otherwise, your order will go toward an earnings pool that is split evenly among indie bookstores. (Check out our full review of Bookshop.org for more info.)
National book distribution companies, which were deemed essential businesses during lockdown, have been shipping and fulfilling many of those orders.
Then there’s Amazon, which already claims about 50% of all print book sales from major publishers, and whom most online book shoppers are still turning to, despite deeming books “nonessential items” and thereby increasing shipping times when initial lockdowns started.
So if you prefer the feel of paper over the glow of a screen, there are still several options that can help you get your fix delivered straight to your front porch.
eBooks and Audiobooks
Overall, most ebook distributors and publishers have seen sales rise by at least double digits since “stay at home” orders went into effect.
Rakuten Kobo’s CEO Michael Tamblyn told Publisher’s Weekly that the company has seen a surge in new account sign-ups and purchases.
Similarly, Draft2Digital’s Director of Marketing and PR reports increased ebook sales across all platforms, with all retailers up by an average of 25%, and libraries by over 130%.
Meanwhile, audiobook distributors have noticed changes in listener behavior with listening times down during the first days of the shutdown, likely due to a drop in commutes and overall changes in routines.
However, as Will Dages, head of audiobook distributor Findaway told BookBub, listening times quickly made a comeback as people adjusted to their new routines and engagement even surpassed previous levels.
With most schools out of commission until the fall, online learning—whether through telecommuting or homeschool curricula—has become the new norm for kids, parents, and teachers.
Thus, many academic publishers will find themselves faring rather well through this new era. This is especially true for those that are armed with strong online resources.
As we’ve already discussed, there’s hope for those that offer a hefty selection of their titles online, but retailers that rely heavily on in-person sales will likely suffer.
With most major retailers already boasting an online sales platform, this means that unfortunately, small businesses and independent sellers are suffering the most through this crisis and will have to adapt by shifting to online sales if they want to survive.
The good news is that those who do adapt might ultimately become stronger than before and see their businesses improve in the long run.
The iconic Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, for example, had to lay off 85% of its staff but was able to rehire 100 employees shortly after due to a rise in online sales demand, according to Forbes.
Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble, which has already been taking a hit for years, is trying to stay in the game by offering curbside pickup in most of its locations that were forced to close for in-store shopping.
Dozens of international book fairs have been canceled as a result of COVID-19. It’s at these fairs that many of the rights for books are sold for the next season.
In an interview with Publishing Executive Insight, Publisher’s Weekly president and owner George Slowik, Jr. explained how the loss of these fairs slows down future commerce and international trade, especially when it comes to the U.S. selling to the rest of the world.
Then, of course, there are the readers, without whom the whole industry would collapse. During government-enforced lockdowns, changes in reader behavior have been noted.
Parents are looking for learning material and entertainment for their children, who will likely be out of school until September.
This trend is something we’ve seen firsthand here at TCK Publishing, as our post on where to download free ebooks for kids skyrocketed from 362 clicks in February to nearly 14,000 in April.
Where adults are concerned, our list of sites offering free romance ebooks also saw significant growth, quadrupling in clicks within the same period. Many adults also seem to be catching up on their TBR lists now that they have more idle time at home.
According to BookBub, Barnes & Noble’s “40 Books You Always Meant to Read” and “Feel Good Fiction” lists are among the retailer’s top trending categories, illustrating the different ways readers are using books to cope with the ongoing situation and new reality.
The production process, too, is being slowed down by the coronavirus outbreak.
Due to COVID-19, Amazon has been experiencing changes in its ability to ship products worldwide from the U.S. This has impacted Kindle Direct Publishing’s ability to fulfill orders for proofs and author copies. However, KDP Support promises that this is only temporary.
Ingram Spark is also experiencing delays, with printing orders now taking approximately 22 business days for paperbacks, as opposed to just 1–2 weeks.
Keeping Hope Alive
Though the future is anything but certain, George Slowik, Jr. reassures in the same interview with Publishing Executive that hope is not lost, pointing out how neither the ebook nor audiobook brought down publishing, despite the predictions made by many.
Changes will come, just as they always have—but reading isn’t dead, and neither is storytelling. In fact, when this turbulent time is finally behind us, it feels safe to say that stories are one thing that won’t be in short supply.
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