Guest Notebook! John Maher, Pandemic Book Sales, What Really Happened?

Our current partner bookseller Astoria Bookshop opened to foot traffic on June 1, after working remotely since March 2020.

Even a person with more interest than average in books and the entities that produce, distribute, and sell them might have been forgiven for thinking, in the face of media coverage of the book business as the Covid-19 pandemic dawned last year, that the industry was doomed. Bookstores and libraries across the country shut their doors. Amazon temporarily stopped shipping any items that weren’t considered “essential,” books included. Book fairs, publishing conferences, and other literary events were canceled en masse. There was even a paper shortage. To the casual observer, things looked grim.

In many ways, they were. Bookstore sales fell by a staggering 28.3 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. And yet, during those same 365 days, sales of print books rose by 8.2 percent over the year prior, while net dollars for trade publishers rose by 9.7 percent. (We’re leaving out for the moment the share of the book business that is not “trade publishing” for a general audience, for example textbooks and other educational materials.) How could this possibly have happened? To understand this is to know the book business has become an ecosystem much more complex than what transpires at your neighborhood bookshop.

Once a book intended for general audiences has been printed by a printer and published by a trade publisher, it is distributed—sometimes by the publishing services arms of publishers themselves, such as Penguin Random House, and other times by dedicated book distributors and wholesalers, such as the unassuming powerhouse Ingram Content Group—to a wide variety of institutions that buy books from publishers and then sell or lend them. Brick-and-mortar booksellers, from your friendly neighborhood independent bookstore to the once-vilified chain bookstore Barnes & Noble, represent only a portion of those institutions. The e-tailing giant Amazon.com, of course, is a dominant piece, as well as other e-tailers that also sell books. Some, like Bookshop.org, a heralded but complicated David to Amazon’s Goliath, even do so exclusively.

That is just for starters. Libraries must buy books from publishers in order to lease them. So must school libraries. (Try to imagine how many copies of Harry Potter books Scholastic must have sold to libraries over the past twenty years and feel the weight of a bookshelf in your brain cracking under the strain.) Then there are all of the brick-and-mortar retailers not classified as booksellers that sell books. Books are sold at stationery stores and new-age shops, supermarkets and big-box stores, airport newsstands and museum gift shops. For years, the principal book buyer at Costco was so influential that her monthly “Pennie’s Pick” distinction would often prompt a sales spike for the designee. Walmart has an entire page on its website dedicated to collecting Reese Witherspoon’s Reese’s Book Club picks. And some publishers—especially, but not exclusively, the larger ones like Penguin Random House—sell books directly to consumers through their own websites.

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Sales of print books to and through any of these outlets count as book sales, but they don’t all count as bookstore sales—hence the disparity between last year’s sales numbers for publishers and bookstores. Skyrocketing online sales and sales through big-box stores more than offset, for publishers, the plummeting pandemic sales through brick-and-mortar bookstores, specialty retailers like airport bookstores and museum gift shops, and libraries.

What does this shift mean for publishing and for what books get published? As bookstores and other brick-and-mortar outlets reopen, the balance is beginning to shift back somewhat, leaving observers to speculate, for the whole retail economy, whether the pandemic has marked a permanent move toward online purchasing. Publishers will take book sales wherever they can get them; booksellers can be heard to complain that publishers are favoring the short-term high of a quick buck when they are dependent in the long term on brick-and-mortar bookstores—especially independent bookstores—to sell books that are not yet known to audiences or harder to categorize.

Seasoned observers have warned that without the more robust “discoverability” of retail bookselling, the major authors of the future will not find their audiences. The dependence of Amazon on algorithms and publishers’ marketing dollars to determine what readers see, and the dependence of the big-box stores on a few big bets, almost guarantee more homogeneity in what gets published. But bookseller support, through handselling or store displays, can give a book a much-needed sales boost even if it’s not a priority for the publisher, or if it’s published by a smaller house that can’t sink tens of thousands of dollars into marketing. Moving toward online and big-box sales tends to favor a few big books. Author earnings may in the aggregate grow, but they grow more for a few authors and shrink for many whose books need dedicated attention to sell.

Bookstore sales hit a big pandemic milestone in March: they jumped by 34.7 percent compared to last March, when Covid-19 first forced brick-and-mortar retailers nationwide to shut their doors for months. (Although they are still 9.3 percent below the previous March.) Trade book sales overall have stayed robust so far in 2021, especially for the big houses. Independent bookstores may have benefitted from a gush of appreciation by their home-bound customers for their perseverance and the relief they brought from pandemic boredom, but appreciation does not cure their structural disadvantage. If anything, the robust sales of the pandemic have hustled the industry along—however quietly compared to the cheers for indie booksellers—in the trends toward consolidation and mass bookselling that were already driving the bottom line.


John Maher is the news and digital editor at Publishers Weekly and a founding editor of The Dot and Line, a web publication devoted to animation. His work has appeared in New York magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and Esquire, among other journals. The Library and Book Trade Almanac 2021, out this month, includes his report on the year in the library and book business.


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