“What was it like seeing book sales skyrocket during the coronavirus pandemic? Jonathan Karp, CEO of Simon & Schuster, couldn’t help but quote Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
“A lot of people had more time at home and turned to books,” Karp said. Sales and virtual appearances, meanwhile, “made it easier to reach readers directly.”
Still, the 18 months have been tough for American publishers, whose work is defined by predictability: they work on multi-month publication schedules, orchestrate book tours and promotional plans, and calibrate impressions to expectations. .
As COVID-19 swept the world last year, they’ve had to throw many of those plans out the window – cancel tours, delay books, and see their media rollouts hushed up by the latest news. Nonetheless, fueled by online sales and demand from quarantined and bored people, total unit sales of printed books in the generally flat industry increased 8% between 2019 and 2020, according to NPD BookScan.
This fall promises something almost as precious as a good year: a return to some semblance of normalcy.
“This year, we are not letting the pandemic dictate our decisions,” said Reagan Arthur, publisher and executive vice president of Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House. “The pandemic has been with us longer than some of these books, so we programmed them to get a much better idea of how we would publish them, regardless of the current climate. “
2021 has been a strong year for adult fiction, led by Amazon bestsellers such as “The Four Winds” by Kristin Hannah, “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig and “The Last Thing He Told Me” by Laura Dave. This fall is just as promising, with new titles from crossover literary stars such as Richard Powers, Anthony Doerr, Jonathan Franzen, Sandra Cisneros and first thriller Hillary Rodham Clinton (with Louise Penny).
The pandemic has fueled surprising – and perhaps temporary – growth areas. George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” is among Amazon’s top 20 bestsellers of the year (so far). And last March, as the state prepared for its first shutdown, Albert Camus’ “The Plague” was flying off the shelves of local stores.
Tobi Harper, deputy director of Red Hen Press, has noticed an increase in readers’ interest in black fiction. (Dystopia has certainly dominated critical attention.) Last fall, even before the rise of the Amanda Gorman phenomenon, it was poetry. “At any time of extreme political turmoil,” Harper said, “there is a noticeable increase in sales of poetry. “
Sales of Japanese manga soared 243%, according to NPD BookScan, making it the largest category of adult fiction in the United States. These sales are expected to decline as people return to offices and schools and reading habits return to the average.
Non-fiction should see a change – away from the Trump books, on the one hand. Jonathan Burnham, president and publisher of the HarperCollins Harper label, believes people will want to read both for entertainment and for information. “I think readers want a wide range of different types of books, and it’s good for the overall health of book publishing and sales,” he said.
Books on civil rights, diversity and discrimination have sold at historic levels since last summer’s protests against police brutality, and those sales are expected to remain high.
“We saw a lot of people buying books from Huey Newton and Angela Davis,” said Stacey Lewis, director of advertising and marketing at City Lights Publishers. At University of California Press, sales of social justice books remain high, reported Tim Sullivan, its executive director.
Between Black Lives Matter, Trump, and the pandemic, it shouldn’t be too surprising that 2020 saw the highest political book sales in NPD BookScan history.
While this year is unlikely to surpass that, expectations are high for September’s “Peril,” the third and final installment in investigative journalist Bob Woodward’s trilogy of Trump disclosures, the latter co-authored by with Robert Costa.
It is one of many books by Trump published this year; it could also be one of the last. The summer saw a rush to publish headlines describing Trump’s loss and his race for power – “Frankly We Won This Election” by Michael C. Bender as well as “I Alone Can Fix It” by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig – hoping to beat Woodward in the fist and maybe make one last take for the readers.
However, the news keeps breaking and some headlines will deal with emergencies that have survived Trump. “The Path to a Livable Future,” by Stan Cox, explores the connections between the many crises of the past year and a half. “Viral”, by Matt Ridley and Alina Chan, will investigate the origins of the virus and question the theory of laboratory leaks.
One title Karp is banking on is “World War C: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic and How to Prepare for the Next One” by Kristin Loberg and Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent.
“The media has covered the pandemic so thoroughly that the authors most likely to stand out are those with great expertise or a controversial outlook,” Karp said. That’s why he expects “World War C” to go well.
“We have been selective on the COVID books,” he said, “because history is everywhere. “
Waiting for normal
Whatever the norm, it’s clear to publishers that we’re not there yet.
Last year, after book tours were canceled, authors turned to virtual platforms to promote their books, wiping out a major source of revenue for bookstores. While online sales have boosted publishing, they tend to help those with established platforms. Brick-and-mortar stores, which operate through hand-selling, referrals, and word of mouth, remain an important avenue for emerging writers.
“An author who has a strong presence or who follows can certainly sell a lot of books at virtual events,” says HarperCollins’ Burnham, “but it’s harder for new voices to get the kind of sales you might get. at in-person events versus virtual, because there is so much competition for people’s time at night.
As fall approaches, many writers are hosting hybrid events – while keeping a close watch, day in and day out, for the booming Delta variant.
Lily Hoang, author of the forthcoming novel “Underneath,” has a few readings planned across the country starting in November. Whether or not she attends will depend on the number of cases.
A professor at UC San Diego, Hoang is used to lecturing through Zoom but less comfortable using it for promotion. “The students in the class pay money to laugh at my bad jokes, but if I read to promote my book and can’t gauge the audience’s reaction, it’s very, very difficult,” he said. she declared.
Police writer Don Winslow has postponed the publication of “City on Fire”, scheduled for September 21, to April 2022, hoping that the tours would be safer then.
“One of the great joys of releasing a new book is interacting with readers while on tour,” Winslow said in an Aug. 10 statement. With COVID-19 cases on the rise again, he will wait until he can “run at full capacity, meet with readers in the signature lines, and shake hands with the people I appreciate so much.
The country’s different reactions to the health crisis posed a major challenge in planning the visits and readings.
Book sales have adjusted well to 18 months of social distancing, but readers and publishers alike look forward to a return to normal patterns this fall.