A year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic was an “known unknown”—a potentially life-changing event we knew could happen someday but didn’t foresee on the near horizon. As we discussed the pandemic, we became increasingly curious to learn whether our anecdotal observations were backed up by facts. We started researching. The pandemic is far from over, but nearly a year into the crisis we have enough data to understand its initial impact on publishing. We’ve published our findings in a 50-page research report. COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021 is available for you to download at no cost as a PDF and Born Accessible EPUB3 eBook.

The greatest worry publishers faced in the early days of the pandemic was supply chain disruption. Could remote publishing teams get books to their printers? Did printers have sufficient capacity to meet demand? Would publishing distributor’s warehouses be knocked out by employee illness? Would bookstores, with truncated operating hours or shut altogether, be open to receive publisher shipments? And would Amazon pause from shipping disinfectant wipes long enough to fill the backlog of consumer print orders?

All of these questions were answered with a ‘yes,’ if not immediately, within a few months. Broadly speaking, publishing has weathered the pandemic. The trade, religious, professional, higher education, and academic publishing segments saw small to modest sales increases. Trade publishing did particularly well: sales were up by 7.5% through October 2020, after a mere 0.4% increase in 2019. Only the K-12 publishing segment saw declining sales.

We’ve all become familiar with the “K” shaped graphs that show how the pandemic has had significantly different effects on varying sectors of the economy. Publishing has its own set of K-shaped relationships: Walmart, Target, Costco all reported significant increases in book sales in 2020, sales through independent booksellers were down 28%. Ebook sales rose 16.5% YTD through October, while mass market paperback sales fell 5.6% through a similar period (YTD through November).

Academic publishing sales are tough to pin down, in part because of reporting, and in part because of industry nomenclature. The only publicly available data comes from the AAP. It monitors a category called “professional books,” which includes business, medical, law, technical and scientific. Sales increased 3.3% for the first ten months of 2020. It records a separate category for university presses, which garnered a modest $41 million in sales in the same period, up 2.2% from the same months in 2019.

The pandemic has had an enormous impact on how publishing companies are staffed and how staff execute their work. And, by all accounts, that impact may mark a permanent shift in publishing workflows.

In early August, Penguin Random House confirmed it will not return to its offices “until sometime (in 2021) … until it’s safe and it’s practical, whenever that may be.” Also in August, Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch sent out a note that “we will not be requiring anyone whose work can be done remotely to return to any of our offices for the foreseeable future.”

No one expects publishing offices to disappear, but even the largest publishers are finding that they can keep the boat afloat with hardly a soul in their enormous, and enormously costly, Manhattan headquarters.

An analysis of university presses in the age of COVID-19 on the Ithaka S+R Blog found that the transition to work from home had been largely seamless, amid a greater focus on process re-engineering and concerns about funding in 2021. Citing predictions that the ongoing impact of the pandemic could lead to the permanent closure of 100 higher education institutions, several press directors wondered if the crisis might “strangle” some of the smaller university presses.

The strength of the publishing industry in 2020 had much to do with the social impact of the lockdown: people were looking for things to do with their time, and to keep their children entertained within a learning context. Books fit the bill perfectly. The economy is forecast to grow in 2021, amid considerable uncertainty. Until the spread of the virus is significantly diminished for a sustained period of time, it will be impossible for anyone to provide a reliable economic forecast—or speculate reliably about the long-term implications for publishing.

The full report is available for download without cost, in both PDF and Born Accessible EPUB3 formats HERE.

Check out my latest feature on the Velocity of Content Podcast Series with CCC’s Chris Kenneally below:


Author: Thad McIlroy

Thad McIlroy, an electronic publishing analyst and author based in San Francisco and Vancouver, BC, is co-author with Cliff Guren and Steven Sieck of COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021, a free, downloadable report that reviews the sector’s recent performance from multiple angles. His site, The Future of Publishing, provides in-depth coverage of the book publishing industry.
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