When bookstores across the United States closed last spring, Tyrrell Mahoney, the president of Chronicle Books, braced for disaster as she watched revenue plummet. Then, months into the crisis, Chronicle found an unlikely savior: the rapper Snoop Dogg and his two-year-old cookbook.
“From Crook to Cook” sold 205,000 copies in 2020, nearly twice as many as it had sold in 2019. It was one of several older Chronicle titles with stronger-than-expected sales during the pandemic, and the company ended up making a profit last year.
“It really was our backlist that saved the day for us,” Mahoney said.
Despite what seemed like insurmountable challenges last year — with bookstores closed, literary events canceled and publication dates postponed — people kept buying books. As other pastimes like movies, theater and sports were put on hold during the shutdown, books turned out to be an ideal form of entertainment for quarantine.
But the tide did not rise for all authors and sellers. The pandemic altered how readers discover and buy books, and drove sales for celebrities and bestselling authors while new and lesser known writers struggled. Many of the 200-plus new books that Chronicle released failed to find an audience and quite likely never will.
“It was harder to get people’s attention around books that didn’t necessarily have a big name attached to them,” Mahoney said. “Are those gone forever?”
Now publishers are wondering if the shifts brought on by the pandemic will change the book trade forever, and not all for the good.
How and where people buy books shifted dramatically, as homebound readers shopped online, driving a greater share of sales to Amazon and to big retailers like Target and Walmart. This mass consumer migration — which was already underway but accelerated during the pandemic — could have a profound impact on literary culture.
Unlike the serendipitous sense of discovery that comes with browsing a bookstore, people tend to search by author or subject matter when they shop online, limiting the titles they see. Often, they see whatever a search or algorithm delivers, or find themselves steered toward titles that retailers push because they are already selling well. As a result, many of the new books that were released in 2020 languished, as panicked retailers focused on brand-name authors and readers gravitated toward the most popular titles.
Amazon’s top-selling book last year was Delia Owens’ “Where the Crawdads Sing,” a novel published in 2018. Readers also snapped up familiar titles by established authors, like Suzanne Collins (“The Hunger Games”) and Jeff Kinney (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”). Of the top 10 fiction bestsellers in 2020, nine were by established, bestselling authors, NPD BookScan showed.
On the flip side, about 98% of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.
“We sell pretty predictable things online,” said James Daunt, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble, which saw a huge jump in online sales during the shutdown. “Nothing wrong with predictable, but ultimately bookstores are places that drive discovery of new talent.”
Publishers now worry about the long-term health of physical bookstores, a critical part of the literary ecosystem that was battered during the shutdown. Bookstore sales fell nearly 30% in 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Overall, publishers’ revenues in the United States, which had been steady but stagnant for much of the past decade, climbed nearly 10% in 2020, to $8.6 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.
Books about politics, race and racism and practical, domestic tasks like cooking were in high demand and drove nonfiction sales. Nonfiction titles for kids grew more than 23% as parents turned to books to educate their homebound children.
Audible, an audiobook producer and platform owned by Amazon, saw a burst of growth during the pandemic, as its users increased their listening hours by roughly 20%, to nearly 500 million hours, in 2020. On Goodreads, the number of books that people listed as having finished between April and December of last year grew by 40%, compared with the same period in 2019. And so far this year, print sales are up nearly 30%, according to NPD BookScan, the highest first-quarter sales since the company began tracking the data in 2004.
Many in the industry now wonder if the pandemic will provide a permanent boost, a moment like the “Harry Potter” phenomenon, when millions of new readers were brought into the fold. Others expect an inevitable decline as more people return to concerts, theaters, sporting events, schools and beaches.
As fear for their industry turned to a stunned optimism last year, publishers started to rethink almost everything they had once took for granted, from how to cultivate new literary talent to the ways that they market and sell books. Live literary events like book signings and author appearances have been replaced, as with so many things, by Zoom. BookExpo, the largest gathering of publishing professionals in the United States, which typically took place in May and drew thousands of booksellers, publishers, editors, agents, authors and librarians to the Javits Center in New York, has been canceled. The convention center is now being used as a mass vaccination site.
“One of the most significant things that’s going to change is the reevaluation of all that we do and how we do it,” said Don Weisberg, the chief executive of Macmillan.
The loss of live author events all but wiped out a significant revenue stream for bookstores. Virtual events can draw bigger and more geographically diverse crowds, and they are cheaper for publishers, but online audiences often don’t buy the book from the store that’s hosting.
Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands in Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona, said that at virtual book events, the store has sold as few as half a dozen books. At a really good virtual event, they might sell 150 copies — but that same author, in person, might sell 1,000. Some publishers have started paying her stores to put on virtual events, she said, usually between $200 and $500, which is about comparable to what they would earn if they sold 20 to 50 books, she said.
Like the big retailers, independent bookstores were also flooded with online orders, a welcome surge of business when their doors were closed, but one they were poorly set up to manage — some stores went from getting maybe a dozen orders a day to hundreds last spring. For many of them, the growth in online sales still wasn’t enough.
“Most of the stores didn’t make any money last year,” said Allison Hill, the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independent stores.
Next month, Penguin Random House will start giving independent bookstores in the United States an extra month to pay their invoices in an effort to help them recover from the pandemic and stay in business in the long term.
Robert Sindelar, the managing partner of Third Place Books in Seattle, said fewer people had attended the store’s virtual events as the pandemic dragged on. “Everyone got Zoom fatigue,” he said. The company’s revenue fell 14% last year despite a spike in online sales.
As more readers shopped online, older titles accounted for two-thirds of all book sales in 2020, accelerating a shift that had previously been more gradual. A decade earlier, backlist titles comprised around half of all sales.
“Our backlist was up tremendously — people found what they wanted somehow,” said Brian Murray, the president and chief executive of HarperCollins.
Meanwhile, the sales life cycles of some acclaimed debuts, which might have made a splash in another era, were cut short. Anticipated first novels like Jessica Anthony’s “Enter the Aardvark,” Celia Laskey’s “Under the Rainbow” and Callan Wink’s “August,” all released last spring, struggled to find audiences.
Before the shutdown, Hilary Leichter’s “Temporary” was shaping up to become one of the year’s breakout debuts. It was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award and shortlisted for the 2020 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, was praised by critics and became ubiquitous on “best books of 2020” lists. But the accolades surrounding the novel were not enough to overcome the obstacles the pandemic posed, after Leichter had to cancel a 10-city tour and appearances at literary festivals. In the end, it sold just a few thousand print copies. “It was a bummer not to be able to push off of all that momentum,” Leichter said.
Still, after releasing her first novel in the midst of a global crisis, she was thrilled to have an audience, no matter the size: “I feel lucky and grateful that people found my book at all.”