By Linda Ruth
This week, to talk about the effect of the Pandemic on books, Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer, joined the Pandemic Roundtable—Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, Sherin Pierce, and me.
Jane began by talking about how surprisingly resilient book sales have turned out to be. Compared to early 2019, 2020 sales are only down half a percent year over year. But bookstores themselves aren’t seeing the same resiliency. Sales in bookstores were down 33% in March, with more sales happening online, on Amazon, in Target and Walmart, and in other accounts that are not exclusively books.
In the same time period, dollars declined a bit more than units. This reflected the increased purchase of juvenile fiction and nonfiction; this category has a lower price point. The sales of ebooks as opposed to print also lowered the overall dollar volume. But that too has stabilized.
Joe: What percentage of book sales come from the independents?
Jane: That’s around 5%. These stores are still important in terms of their influence, they are courted by publishers and seen as tastemakers, but they’ve been hit hard, with overall sales down by a third so far. The migration of book sales online has been a challenge for independent bookstores.
Sherin: Our book distributor is asking for delayed billing for the independents to help them get back on their feet.
Joe: Hasn’t there been an increase in the number of independent bookstores, though? It’s one of the bits of good news we hear.
Jane: That’s misleading, in the sense that they’ve been tracking more types of stores as part of the category—used books, antiquarians, the Half-Price chain. So numbers of indies are up, but it doesn’t mean they’re robust.One huge happy story is the initiative James Patterson launched for indie bookstores, donating $500,000 to keep them going.
BoSacks: Have prices of books come down as a result of market conditions?
Jane: It would make sense in this environment. The big 5 have lowered some ebook prices but they haven’t promoted the discounts well, so it isn’t as widely known as it should be. Also, as a temporary measure, when the Pandemic hit, they cut the price on library licenses and made it easier for libraries to acquire digital materials.
Sherin: The library market is complicated—the big publishers are shortsighted in not marketing to them in a systematic way. It would help educate our population, elevate everyone in an affordable way.
BoSacks: What genres are doing well currently?
Jane: That’s morphed as the months have passed—originally it was children’s education, then it shifted to entertaining, cooking, baking. Anything in home, DIY, gardening, cooking, home repair—it all has taken off in April and May. Adult fiction was initially depressed but has now returned to normal with an emphasis on escapist fiction, like crime/thrillers.
Joe: So people like me reading pandemic/dystopian fiction are outliers.
Jane: Well, there was an upsurge in titles like Camus’ The Plague. Also classics have spiked—people are taking advantage of this time to finally read all of Ulysses.
Gemma: Anti-racism books have been selling out.
Jane: Yes, that’s correct, 15 of the top 20 on Amazon. An image has gone viral of all the books you’re supposed to read, and people are buying them.
Joe: What is the feeling about the new management of Barnes and Noble?
Jane: There is so much hope. People want the chain to continue. They’ve had 4 or 5 CEOs in 5 years. James Daunt is a respected figure in the bookstore world, although there is some criticism of how much Waterstones [in the UK] pays employees. No one knows how the chain will recover.
Sherin: They need to go back to the basics, their core of books.
BoSacks: I would imagine that print on demand is robust.
Jane: I’ve heard it’s off the charts. Lightning Source’s turnaround time keeps going up. They are up to 22 days.
Sherin: Is there an average order for POD?
Jane: Some are one-offs, some stopgaps to fill demand before a publisher’s next print run. The big five publishers can be reluctant to use it—often they will backorder till next print run rather than use POD. Of course, the Pandemic is changing everything.
BoSacks: From what I hear, authors’ incomes are dropping.
Jane: Most of the decline comes from the loss of speaking gigs—of course those are going away now, along with some freelance writing assignments. Royalties are paid twice a year, so any effect of the Pandemic on them will be seen later.
Sherin: Audiobooks are doing well.
Jane: That’s the silver lining. Ebooks never took hold to the expected degree, but audio is growing about 25% year over year. They have high price points and publishers continue to make the recordings more sophisticated with full-cast narration, sound effects, and so on.
Joe: What is your take on Books a Million?
Jane: It’s the chain no one seems to talk about. You actually hear more about Canada’s Indigo/Chapters than Books a Million, but nowadays Indigo is not doing so well.
Sherin: Chapters stores overwhelm with all the non-book product. You go in and it’s hard to figure out where you are. You have to wade through all the other stuff to get to the books.
Jane: Yes, the CEO wanted to move to a more lifestyle focus, and it doesn’t seem to have worked.
Joe: It would be a disaster to our industry if Barnes and Noble went down.
BoSacks: if there is a void, an entrepreneur will fill it. But the pain of the transition might be grievous.