Book Publishing and Covid: Be Aware, Be Nimble, Pivot

Lots of authors feel pulled to write to trends. When the Harry Potter and Twilight series were hot, slush piles (the towers of manuscripts at publishing houses for editorial assistants to read) were filled with wizards and werewolves. During the heart of the pandemic, did you feel compelled to put aside any dreams of writing a travel guidebook and instead start wondering if you could pull off writing a breadmaking cookbook? Did you think, “Finally, my book on mulching, now that people have time to think about mulching, will find an audience!”

Homemaking books, children’s books (both for escapist fun and for at-home education), and “‘fat’” books, “‘those books that everybody is supposed to have read but perhaps hasn’t,’” all saw great sales during the pandemic, while few were buying books on foreign languages and business, at least, not on business as usual.

But here’s the thing with trends, be they fashion, pedigree dogs, or books: as soon as they exist, they’re already out the door. Consider travel guides during the pandemic. While sales of those had declined 40 percent year to date in May 2020, sales also saw four consecutive weeks of growth that same month. Not as many travel books were purchased in January to May 2020 as in that same period in 2019, but the 2020 numbers didn’t continue to fall. Instead, people started buying guides for the travel they could do—like regional travel by car or bike. Guides to parks and campgrounds saw their sales increase by 123 percent in May 2020.

So, the key is not to write to some vague trend but to be aware and nimble, willing and able to pivot quickly and assuredly.

According to NPD BookScan, which tracks book sales through retailers, “it won’t be demand that determines the industry’s future.” Instead, book publishing will be thinking about the stability of the channels that sell (for example, bookstores, online booksellers) and deliver (for example, print-on-demand facilities) books. It will even more closely monitor any crises in the world, and it will think about how its current capital and resources can be put to the best use during the next rainy day. In other words, the book publishing industry is thinking not in trends but in big-picture solutions that can apply under any condition—it is thinking how to be aware, be nimble, and pivot.

Here are three broad areas you as an author should be making A, B, and C plans in:

  1. What’s your topic? If X, Y, or Z happens and negatively affects your topic, how could you easily adjust while staying true to your expertise and interest?
  • Are you open-minded about formatting? EBooks have become standard alongside print, and some books are published only as electronic books, but should you consider making an audiobook as well? Audiobook revenue in the US rose 12 percent in 2020 over 2019 sales figures, but that wasn’t a pandemic blip. The audiobook industry has seen double-digit increases for nine years in a row. There’s a lot to consider about taking that plunge, but it’s worth the consideration, at least.
  • Are you comfortable with all kinds of sales and marketing approaches? Can you give a successful reading in-person and over video calls? Do you know your local booksellers, so they can sell your title, even without the benefit of customers in their stores? Are you familiar with all the different types of people who are putting your books in the hands of readers? If independent stores, libraries, or big-boxes (both bricks-and-mortar and online) stumble for any reason, what do you need to do to direct readers to one of the others? (And don’t forget relative newcomers including Bookshop.org, which picks up all books distributed by Ingram. It did $51 million in sales in 2020—which just happened to be its first year.

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