In conversations with our agency’s clients these past couple of weeks, each one has asked me how the coronavirus affects publishing. We, of course, don’t know the long-term affect. But I thought I’d update you all on what’s happened so far.
Mass Migration to Working at Home
As is true for most businesses, publishers declared all employees who can work from home were to do so. The majority of publishers announced that decision the week of March 15. In my connections with publishing staff that week, I was surprised at how vigorously engaged they were with me via email. I was tapping on the computer keys as fast as I could but still couldn’t keep up with my inbox. I wondered if this indicatied how much more productive editors, etc. could be if freed up from meetings.
Well, the second week of working from home brought far fewer emails. So either everyone ended up with videoconferencing meetings to fill in blank spots on their calendars, or editors settled into a work life-home life balance that enabled them to do deeper work. Or, another option is that they were striving to figure out their work life-homeschooling balance…
Speaking of videoconferencing, I’m getting plenty of practice putting on makeup and accessorizing outfits. That’s because I’m involved in a lot more videoconferencing sessions with publishing personnel. I’m thankful we have the technology to have these sessions. These sessions indicate that business is proceeding. Editorial and publishing committee meetings also are taking place, using videoconferencing.
Are individuals who are stuck at home turning to books as part of their entertainment package? We have reports from the week of March 15 to indicate that books sales were good.
These categories saw considerable growth:
- Studying from home/what to do with the kids showed the biggest gains during the week
- Followed by reading for pleasure.
Among specific sub-categories of scale, in terms of their overall size, the biggest increases in sales were for:
- literary fiction (22%)
- kids’ activity books (27%)
- personal memoirs (67%)
- and self-help (63%)
- followed by kids’ study aids, and coloring books.
Amazon and Coronavirus
Amazon was inundated with orders for health products and food, especially. So much so that the behemoth announced they were looking to add 100,000 employees to fill orders. They also announced that different categories of purchases would be given different priorities. Health and food were labeled the highest priority. This week Amazon made Prime members a priority as well.
Unfortunately, books were considered a low priority. When you order a book, it can take a couple of weeks for it to reach you. Plus Amazon isn’t vigorously restocking books; the focus is on keeping other product stocked. The delays in shipping aren’t across the board, but you’ll be told when your items will arrive after you add each item to your cart.
This, of course, has a deleterious affect on book sales. Most publishers find 60-70% of their book sales come from Amazon. Although I talked to an editor this week who indicated the publishing house for whom he works sees 25% of their sales from Amazon. (I’m pretty sure that’s the exception rather than the rule.)
Barnes & Noble, Independent Stores, and Coronavirus
B&N has noted an uptick in book sales so far for March, especially digital sales from its website. Publishers suggest that authors encourage readers to order from Barnes & Noble rather than Amazon, considering Amazon’s new fulfillment priorities. B&N has shuttered many of its stores temporarily.
Independent bookstores have gotten creative by offering curb pickup options for customers. Some bookstores in Southern California decided to put together Care Packages. These packages include books, of course, but customers can customize each Care Package by picking out socks, bookmarks, greeting cards, etc., which the bookstores carry. The packages are then shipped out to the address the buyer indicates. You can read more about this creative idea and how it’s working here.
Release Dates Redo
Some titles’ release dates are being pushed back in hopes that book buyers will pay more attention to the releases when life returns to normal. That’s especially true for books by renowned authors, who have the ability to garner significant sales but might not get the same rush-to-purchase now, when we’re not preoccupied with the coronavirus.
One of my clients has a novel releasing in September, entitled Airborne (by DiAnn Mills). The tale centers on a virus released on an airplane. Now, some of us don’t care to read fiction about viruses at this point, but a significant uptick of sales has occurred for such novels. As have virus-focused films. “Contagion,” which was released in 2011, has become the film du jour.
With this in mind, we contemplated with the publisher whether we could release Airborne earlier than planned. But ultimately, we concluded that too many steps in its release would be skipped (appearing in the publisher’s catalog, having sales reps present it to bookstore buyers, etc.). But the publisher did produce a sampler of the book’s first two chapters to encourage wannabe buyers to pre-order the book.
In these ways publishing is showing that it can be flexible and thoughtful in making adjustments.
Wait and See
As is true with every aspect of coronavirus, we’ll see long-term the affect this disease will have on the publishing industry. I would think the longer we’re living isolated from each other and normal lifestyle choices, the greater the impact. Exactly what that means, we don’t know. But, for the most part, publishing seems to have adjusted quickly to our new norms. Book contracts continue to be offered, marketing plans are being put into place for upcoming releases with the assumption that someday media won’t be consumed by the virus, and many other aspects of publishing continue apace.
What questions do you have about how publishing is adjusting to the virus? What adjustments have you made?
How has publishing been affected by the coronavirus? Click to tweet.
In what ways has publishing adjusted to the coronavirus? Click to tweet.
These fell times will be gone by fall,
vanished to a thicker air,
but I hope we shall recall
the ways in which we learned to care
for neighbours who were isolated
by ravages of passing years,
and whose lives were decimated
by the overwhelming fears
that their days would be destroyed
as modern life went to the torch,
but found themselves quite overjoyed
by food delivered to their porch,
paid in ways they never saw,
obedient to a Higher law.
Kristen Joy Wilks
This is exactly what I’ve been wondering! Thank you so much, Janet. I just sent out a requested partial this week and was wondering as I pressed send. Would the publisher still be buying? But I thought of all those Moms and Dads who were suddenly homeschooling and might possibly have 2 rowdy teen boys and a twelve-year-old boy to boot, wrestling hither and yon across the small confines of their home, shaking the walls with their leaps and leaving the couch groaning with their happy attacks upon one another. Why is my home-with-3-sons description so detailed and specific? No reason, why do you ask? But seriously, I’m thinking that finding new and interesting books will be a priority for parents at this time. So, I submitted anyway. Then I got back to forcing those rowdy hooligans back to all their school tasks!
Thanks for that peek into your home life. Rambunctious kids in need of working off some energy, for sure!
Thanks for doing your part in keeping publishing in forward motion by submitting your partial. And congrats on receiving that request!
I keep reminding myself that publishers are buying 2022 and 2023, not even 2021. Will readers be buying books then? I’m confident they will.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Oh, ha ha! Yes, they are buying for release dates quite a ways in the future aren’t they. I had worried that publishing might slow or be put on hold as other businesses lurched to a molasses pace. But I have to remember that the editors have the future in mind, not this exact moment.
Janet, what a timely post. I’ve been wondering how COVID has affected the publishing industry. It sounds like houses are adapting pretty quickly, which is reassuring.
I’m curious, as a pre-published writer, are traditional publishing houses still open to new authors, or are they tending to focus on proven, multi-published authors? Is it harder, right now, for an unpublished author to get a book into the publishing process and eventually published?
Jeane, good question about how open publishers are to debut authors. The outlook is different, depending on whether we’re talking about fiction or nonfiction.
If you’re writing a novel, I’d say your chances of being published are decent. Novelists don’t experience the same kind of intense pressure to have a significant platform as someone writing nonfiction; much more emphasis is placed on the writing and on a proven willingness to engage with readers on social media.
For nonfiction, it’s considerably harder for a debut writer to find a publishing slot. Writers need to be profoundly engaged in social media, YouTube, and/or a podcast, or publishers simply don’t have the tools to effectively sell your book to readers. Having a strong concept and good writing come in second to platform. Trust me, editors, agents, and publishers hate that is the case, but if a publishing house doesn’t make a profit, it can produce no books.
Thanks for mentioning Airborne, my September release. I find it odd that I had the idea three years before I wrote the book, and it was completed before the COVID 19 attacked the globe.
You’re welcome, DiAnn. Yes, your concept is timely to say the least. And certainly not written in imitation of real life but out of inspiration.
My biggest concern is what is going to happen to indie bookstores, especially Christian stores. As an indie publisher, a small part of my total sales is special orders of print versions through B&N and indie stores. But I love to shop in them myself, and I don’t want them to die. Our NM indie stores aren’t even able to do curbside pickup under the governor’s shut-down orders.
I can track my e-book sales in real time, and I’ve seen an increase of about 50% versus last year. With 2 more books in market than a year ago, that increase should have been 30-40%. The biggest surprise I had was a doubling of my sales through Amazon UK when they went into stay-at-home mode. (That mapped onto a tripling of UK visitors to my Roman history website where the books’ covers and taglines are in the sidebar.) I would love to know (but I don’t know if they’ll tell you) whether traditionally published e-books are enjoying a similar increase in sales and whether that is going to be enough to help smaller publishers that might be struggling because of reduced print sales.
Carol, we should all be praying for the survival of independent bookstores and of Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million. To lose these retails outlets would be a blow to publishing’s solar plexus. And as readers, we all selfishly enjoy having local bookstores to visit.
Stores are encouraging people to either order digital books or to buy gift cards that can be used later. (I had no idea that curbside pickup isn’t an option for bookstores in New Mexico. What a challenge that is for bookstore owners!)
Traditional publishing is seeing an upswing in digital book sales. Audio books also are experiencing an upswing in sales.
The main Christian bookstore and another general indie store, both of which host signings, sent out emails that they were completely closed in compliance with the governor’s order. I’m praying the Christian one, which has had many fewer people in it than it used to, doesn’t die because of this. I fear many Christian bookstores that were just managing to hang on will go under after a month of no sales.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Yeah, I’m from Washington state and curb side delivery isn’t an option anymore either. It is for tea, coffee, and wine though. Go figure? I chatted with our bookstore owner on the phone recently and they will take over the phone orders and mail them out to you. So everyone should call their Indie bookstore and order a book and they will mail them to you, even when Amazon is focusing on mailing all that TP, book stores are focusing on the books, yay! Not that I don’t like TP …
Jean E Jones
Thanks for this timely information. Amazon initially showed it was delaying shipment of my 3 books by 4+ weeks. But now it’s shipping the ones with “Hope” and “Joy” in the title in 3 days, while the newest release (“Discovering Jesus in the OT” is still delayed 3+ weeks. Do you know if that’s because Amazon folks have decided people need hope and joy, or because the earlier releases have more sales?
Jean, Amazon has not disclosed why some books have significant delays while others have just a slight lag. It more than likely has something to do with the titles’ availability. Amazon doesn’t have the work force to examine each title and make a decision about how to prioritize shipping based on the potential efficacy for readers. That’s way too micro a view for them to manage. Not to mention that many (probably most) Amazon decisions are based on algorithms.
It is so great that Amazon plans to add 100,000 jobs. So many people need jobs right now. But I have a question or two. You said that when you order a book from Amazon, it could take a couple of weeks for it to reach you. That has not been my experience. Of course, I am a Prime Member. I’ve ordered a number of books over the last few weeks and they’ve come within two or three days (ebooks only take minutes. 🙂 ). Plus with Amazon’s print on demand, I’m not sure about restocking books. I probably missed something, but I thought the stocking of books went the way of rotary phones. At any rate, people have a lot more time to read these days, and that is good for authors and agents and publishers.
Linda, I’ve tested how long it takes to receive various books ordered from Amazon, and for one of my clients, who has five published books, receipt ranges from 2-3 days to 2-3 weeks, and it doesn’t seem to matter if the book is a new release or an older book. And for one title, it’s only available from third parties, which makes no sense in light of Amazon having POD available to use. I asked the publisher about why there is such a variation of delivery times and third-party sellers vs. POD and was told that Amazon isn’t always utilizing POD. I find that completely odd. That’s all I know, which isn’t much.
Janet, books from indie publishers using Kindle Direct Publishing (the Amazon POD publishing subsidiary) are printed as ordered. My paperbacks for bookstores and libraries and my hardcovers listed through Amazon are POD from Ingram Spark. But Amazon has a “real” publishing arm as well with several imprints, like Waterfall Press that won both a Carol and a RITA in 2017. Are those imprints POD or regular offset print runs with all the stocking problems of traditional publishers right now? Both my KDP paperbacks and my Ingram hardcovers have been showing either “in stock” or 1 or 2 days to be shipped. It appears, under normal times, they keep some of my hardcovers in stock.
FYI, KDP won’t allow preorder of paperbacks that KDP prints, but printing a paperback through Ingram Spark lets the IS paperback go up for preorder through Amazon like a “regular publisher’s” books, and they are listed as sold and shipped by Amazon eligible for free shipping. When the book officially releases, I turn on the KDP printing, and the IS version is replaced by the KDP book as the “sold and shipped by Amazon” choice.
The timing of DiAnn’s novel. Wow. My mentor Lynne Gentry and her co-author Lisa Harris have a novel releasing at the end of this month, the story centering on a virus, as well, titled Port of Entry. Like DiAnn, they have been working on this for years. I plan to help authors during this time as much as possible, do what I can, read and rate. I’m using the time at home to read and write more, spend time with family. I’m pulled to the news constantly and the Worldometers website, which reports the virus numbers for each country and our individual states. I can hardly believe our world. I bought Sarah Forgrave’s Caregivers devotional … I think it’s important to filter in the positive, as well, while praying for a miracle.
Shelli, thank you for generously spending time promoting authors’ books that are releasing during a time when it’s hard to concentrate on what to make for dinner. We need to keep reminding each other that this too shall pass. We’re developing resiliency–not that any of us named that as a goal for 2020.