Pandemic turns a page for publishing

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: books!

NICK EICHER, HOST: Even before COVID-19, there were changes brewing in the publishing world. But prolonged stay-at-home orders accelerated those trends. Industry analysts now say buying and reading books will probably never be the same. WORLD’s Anna Johansen reports.

MCLEAN: When the COVID crisis emerged, reading completely upended itself.

ANNA JOHANSEN: Kristen McLean analyzes the book market for a research company called NPD. She says at the start of 2020, lots of people were buying self-help books and novels. But once the virus hit, all those sales dropped away.

Booksellers saw a 200 percent spike in education-related books for students. And for adults…

MCLEAN: It was very much like what do I need to take into my house to make sure I know how to take care of my family. So we saw things like first aid, DIY home repair, certain types of books on canning, and container gardening.

As people moved through varying levels of stay-at-home restrictions, reading patterns changed. People moved away from the basics of survival and turned to more leisure activities—like bread baking.

MCLEAN: I have never seen so compressed a cycle where you could look at what people were buying in a particular week, and understand exactly what was going on in their head. So it was almost like a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs playing out in the data on a weekly basis.

Nancy Hanger owns StarCat Books. It’s a quirky little bookshop in a tiny village in Vermont. She says she definitely saw the trend away from survival resources and toward creative topics.

HANGER: Oh, craft books. Yes, people were constantly asking me for craft books. They wanted to pick up knitting or crocheting or things that they had never learned or done before.

StarCat Books is the kind of place you go in and browse just for the experience. You wander around for an hour, you sit down and read a few chapters, you have a cup of coffee, and then you buy the book.

Even before COVID-19, bookstores like that were fighting to keep up with Amazon. StarCat Books was doing okay financially. But during lockdown, it had to close for about three months and Hanger still had bills to pay.

HANGER: So I needed to hustle.

She started a GoFundMe campaign to keep up with rent. The store got donations from the American Booksellers Association. Then a company called called her up and said, Hey, you should join us.

HANGER: What we’re doing is creating something online for you independent stores to fight against Amazon.

So Hanger added an affiliate link to her website. It takes shoppers to Bookshop’s website…and then StarCat Books gets 40 percent of anything they buy there.

During the pandemic, hundreds of independent bookstores partnered with And the model paid off. Amazon was prioritizing items it designated as essential, and books were on the low end of the totem pole. That meant a lot of people were turning back to independent bookstores.

Kristen McLean says shoppers also started buying from retailers like Target and Walmart … because those were the stores that were still open.

MCLEAN: What we really saw was the behavior rearrange itself across many, many different types of retailers. The consumers were super creative during this time period about getting what they needed.

The pandemic jumpstarted another trend: E-books. More Americans still prefer print books. But sales of digital books jumped nearly 11 percent in April, the first full month of lockdown, compared to the same month in 2019.

Peter Goodman runs a publishing company called Stonebridge Press.

GOODMAN: There was a lot of resistance to ebooks, people feeling, real true book lovers, people liked the whole the physical object in their hands and admire the binding and the paper, etc. I think that has been forced to change because that’s how you can get your books quickly these days.

That’s been a boon for self-published authors, who rely heavily on ebooks. And as digital formats gain wider acceptance, writers will need to rely even less on the traditional publishing industry.

That industry is already pretty shaken up. As a publisher, Goodman is having to rethink how his company will release new books in today’s environment.

GOODMAN: We had a guidebook for Tokyo, Japan, all set to be released…But we postponed the book until next year because travel to Japan, like travel to most other places, just completely evaporated. No one’s getting on airplanes. Why bother?

Authors want to get their books released in the fall, before Christmas, but there’s already a backlog from all the books that were postponed this spring.

Publishing a book requires a carefully choreographed mix of tours, signings, author meet and greets. That’s tough to do these days—at least in person. And Goodman says that’s bad news for indie bookstores.

GOODMAN: One of the things that they’ve discovered as a key to their success is being a real, involved, and enthusiastic participant in their community.

As more events shift online, these little stores will have to fight to survive. But Nancy Hanger says it’s important that they do because of the service they provide for their communities.

HANGER: We’re not an algorithm. We’re real people. We know your tastes, we’ll be able to take a book and put it in your hands. You can also take the book and hold it and actually look through it, sit down, read a little bit of it, see if you really want it.

As soon as StarCat Books reopened in mid-June, she says customers shifted away from buying books online and came back to browse.

HANGER: Even if they don’t buy anything, they come in to say hello, to catch up on the local gossip, and just be in a building that’s full of books.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen.


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