When the coronavirus spread to the United States this spring, most of the entertainment industry went into hibernation, as theaters, concert halls, museums, Broadway and film production sets closed. Publishing, however, seemed more resilient: books have remained available online and stand out as an art form that can be easily produced and consumed in isolation.
But even the publishing world has not been immune to the economic fallout from the pandemic. U.S. book sales across all categories fell more than 8% in March from March 2019, a drop that reflects the challenges publishers face in a ravaged retail landscape.
The steepest declines have been recorded in educational publishing, a likely result of massive school and college closures. Revenues from Kindergarten to Grade 12 teaching materials were half of what they were a year ago, while course materials for higher education fell by more than 8%. University press books were down more than 21%.
It is still not clear to what extent the industry will be affected by the current crisis. Data for March only revealed the impact of the first few weeks of the shutdown. But sales by commercial publishers held up surprisingly well in March, despite the spate of bookstore closings across the country. Revenues for commercial publishers were flat, edging up almost 1%, and increased 2.6% in the first three months of 2020 compared to the same period last year.
The sales figures, which were released Tuesday by the Association of American Publishers, a group that tracks the earnings of about 1,360 publishers, provided a snapshot of the industry at a time of upheaval. Some categories, like digital audio, which has been one of the fastest growing formats in recent years, seemed almost pandemic-proof, with a jump of 15%. Downloaded audio for children has increased by almost 50%, as parents sheltering at home with children have turned to audiobooks for entertainment. Surprisingly enough, e-book revenues fell almost 5% and print revenues increased by over 1%.
The drop was in line with a strong overall downward trend for retailing in March, which fell 8.7% from the previous month, the most dramatic drop in three decades. The April picture was even darker. Retail sales overall fell more than 16% last month, with particularly steep declines for clothing stores, home and furniture stores, and restaurants and bars. (Publishers’ earnings for April are not yet available from the Association of American Publishers.)
Bookstores have also been hit hard by shelter-in-place orders across the country. According to estimates released last week by the Census Bureau, bookstore sales fell more than 33% in March and more than 11% this year compared to the first three months of 2019.
There are encouraging signs that after a sharp drop sparked by bookstore closures and economic uncertainty, publishers are starting to see signs of a recovery, with strong sales of commercial fiction and children’s non-fiction. Readers flocked to the new releases from famous authors like John Grisham, Stephen King, and Suzanne Collins. Publishers also saw strong sales online and at big box stores like Walmart and Target, which were seen as essential businesses and never completely closed their doors.
As states across the country begin to lift door-to-door orders, bookstore chains like Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble are reopening their doors for in-store purchases, while a growing number of independent bookstores open for curbside pickup. , and in some cases open for customer browsing.
“There is currently a wide range of offerings,” said Scott Kappler, director of marketing at Books-A-Million, who cited strong sales of puzzles and games, educational resources and commercial fiction.
There are also indications that print sales are picking up. Sales of print increased 10.5%, to over 13 million units, for the week ending May 9 from the previous week, and were up about 10% from the same week last year, with increases in both fiction and non-fiction, according to NPD BookScan.
However, the lingering impact of the economic crisis worries many authors, publishers and booksellers. With millions of Americans out of work, books can become an elusive luxury as discretionary spending declines. Likewise, many independent bookstores, an essential outlet for authors and publishers to promote the discovery of new books, risk having to close permanently. Amazon, meanwhile, could emerge from the crisis with an even larger market share in book sales. And it seems unlikely that the industry will make a full recovery until schools are able to host book fairs, literary festivals, and trade shows, classroom materials will again be needed for teachers and students, and that bookstores can host in-store events with the authors. it all seems like a distant prospect.
“Are we going to come back to the author events in person?” Not yet, ”said Kristen McLean, executive director of business development for NPD Books. “What does book culture look like in the post-Covid era? “