Surprise Ending for Book Publishers: In 2020, Business Was Good

From a New York Times story by Elizabeth A. Harris headlined “Surprise Ending for Publishers: In 2020, Business Was Good”:

Like everybody else, book publishers will be happy to see the end of 2020. But for many of them, the year has brought some positive news, which has been as welcome as it was surprising: Business has been good.

With so many people stuck at home and activities from concerts to movies off limits, people have been reading a lot — or at least buying a lot of books. Print sales by units are up almost 8 percent so far this year. . . .

When the United States slammed shut in March, book sales dropped sharply, but the dip didn’t last. While some parts of the industry have continued to struggle, like bookstores and educational publishers, publishing executives say that demand came rushing back around June.

Many of these sales went to Amazon, but big-box stores, especially Target, also did well. As essential businesses that sold things like groceries, they were allowed to stay open through the lockdowns. Dennis Abboud, chief executive of ReaderLink, a book distributor to major chains like Walmart, Target and Costco, said his company’s online sales nearly quadrupled over last year.

“It was really a tale of two cities,” Mr. Abboud said. “The beginning of the year was mega soft, and the end of the year was mega strong.”. . .

There have been a few particularly powerful themes in book selling this year. The Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd at the end of May caused a rush on books about race and antiracism. Bookstores had trouble keeping titles in stock like “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, and “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo.

Political books, especially about President Trump, have also performed well. That was a particular boon for Simon & Schuster, which published some of the biggest presidential tell-alls of the year, including Mary L. Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough,” which sold more than 1.35 million copies in its first week. Former President Barack Obama’s memoir, “A Promised Land,” published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House, has sold more than 3.3 million copies in North America since it was published last month, and it has also been a best seller in countries like Germany, France, Brazil and Sweden.

But the strength in the general-interest publishing market has gone beyond a few titles and categories. New books, which in industry-speak are called the frontlist, have sold well, but so have older titles.

“There have been frontlist successes like ‘A Promised Land’ or ‘Untamed,’ absolutely,” Ms. McIntosh said of Mr. Obama’s book and a memoir by Glennon Doyle. “But things like ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ have sold more copies than we have in the past. It’s just this remarkable lift of the whole market.”. . .

Parts of the book world have struggled. With many churches and other houses of worship closed, the sale of religious books has dropped, according to BookScan, and the travel category has tanked by more than 40 percent in print. (Young adult fiction, on the other hand, and books on home and gardening are up more than 20 percent.). . ..

Independent bookstores have had an extraordinarily difficult year. Many were closed to foot traffic for months, and scrambled to turn their stores into fulfillment centers for online orders, something they were never built to do on a significant scale. Some stores reported to the American Booksellers Association earlier this year that their sales were down at least 40 percent. But Allison K. Hill, the trade organization’s chief executive, said the last few weeks have been encouraging.

“The stakes were very high going into the holiday season,” she said. “We won’t really know where everybody stands until the holiday season is completely finished.”. . .

Elizabeth A. Harris is a roving culture reporter. A Times reporter since 2009, she has covered education, retail companies for the business section, real estate as the “Appraisal” columnist, and New York politics.

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