Book Sales Go Nuts

A recent story in Publisher’s Weekly noted that sales of printed books were up 9.5% in the US for the week ending Oct 31, year over year. While the jump was led by books for children and young adults (a new Diary of a Wimpy Kid), adult titles, including a new Lee Childs and Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights, also sold well.

It was only one week’s worth of data but it was good news, and it occurred to me that it wasn’t the first story I’d read in the last month with good news about book sales. I went back and checked. And holy.

Turns out adult trade books, notwithstanding a pandemic that ground the industry to a halt last spring, are up 9 percent through the first nine months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. For perspective, the annual fluctuation in book sales is usually up or down 2 or 3 percent.

Four of the Big Five global publishers have reported financial results in the last ten days, all stellar (the fifth, Macmillan, as a private company, doesn’t regularly report).

At Hachette, U.S. sales jumped 19%, year over year, in the third quarter. The company attributes that success to Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun and Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and “another massive #1 bestseller” by Nicholas Sparks, The Return, among other titles.

Hachette UK was up 15.6%

HarperCollins saw a third-quarter leap of 13%, along with strong profits. Its press release boasts that its “strong results reflect the importance of savvy commissioning, combined with sensible cost control.”

Simon & Schuster’s sales in the third quarter were up 28.5% over the same period in 2019, led by books by Bob Woodward and Mary Trump on the latter’s crazy uncle. “S&S Sold Just About Everything in 2020, Except Itself,” said Vanity Fair, referring to ViacomCBS’s long-running efforts to unload the venerable publishing house. Executives at ViacomCBS can count themselves lucky. Results like these will goose the asking price (from $1.2 to $1.5 billion, if you’re interested).

Penguin Random House parent Bertlesmann hasn’t posted details about its third-quarter but yesterday’s press release cites the book publishing division as “particularly robust.”

Bloomsbury saw an increase of 10% in the first six months of the year over the same period last year.

I called my buddy Jack David at ECW, Canada’s leading independent publisher. He says his revenues are up 25% so far this year. He attributes the increase to strong book sales (including the late Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider), corporate publishing deals, and a lot of activity at ECW’s audiobook studio.

Sutherland House is too young to have year-over-year comparables that make much sense but in October 2020 alone we did 25% of our total business in Canada since our launch in April 2019. Karen Gosbee’s A Perfect Nightmare: My Glittering Marriage and How It Almost Cost Me My Life, released less than a month ago and already our all-time bestseller, leads the way.

So good news everywhere.

What the heck is happening? We’re in a pandemic.

A lot of bookstores have been closed or only half-open.

The most distracting election in living memory has been dominating our media, making it next to impossible to get good promotion for books.

A lot of publishers held their best books until 2021, not wanting to compete with the election.

And yet, we’re seeing fantastic sales, unlike anything seen in recent history. There hasn’t been a year like this since way back in the Harry Potter era (see 2005):

It’s amusing to read the Big Five publishers’ press releases attributing their success to their great lists and “savvy commissioning.” There are two audiences for these press releases: the public, and the people who hand out bonuses at Big Five publishing companies. (Where was HarperCollins’s savvy commissioning in that run of dreadful quarters from early-2019 right into the pandemic?)

Self-congratulatory comments are warranted when you’re consistently up and others are down, or you’re consistently up more than others are up, but when everyone is up, there’s something larger at play.

Two possible answers.

People are reading more during the pandemic. They’re not spending two hours a day on the commute, they’ve finished the whole of Netflix, they’re afraid to leave the home, so they’re picking up books.

There is some evidence for this, including this survey done back in March:

It may be that people are still reading more, nine months into the pandemic. I’d like to think so, but I haven’t found data to support it.

Even if they are reading more, their new habits don’t necessarily translate into higher book sales.

Back in March, when everyone reported more time to read, bookstores were closed and Amazon had deprioritized books — next-day delivery was next-month delivery. US bookstore sales fell 33% in March and 65% in April. In Canada, non-Amazon sales were off roughly 40% from mid-March to mid-April. All of the Big Five firms were panicking. They couldn’t give books away.

It may be that as the months passed, people continued to read more than usual, and as bookstores re-opened and Amazon re-prioritized books, they started to buy. But who knows?

The other possible explanation for high book sales is that people can’t borrow them.

Yes, I’m blithering about libraries, again.

According to the Chicago Tribune, foot traffic is down 50% to 65% at public libraries, many of which are closed or half-closed or otherwise limiting their services. Pre-pandemic, four out of five books read in Canada, and three out of four books read in the U.S., were borrowed. Stands to reason that if you stop making available at no charge something that people want, they’ll start paying for it, especially when the bingo parlor is closed.

The library community will find this explanation absurd and insist that people’s habits have changed in lockdown. At least we can agree that all the publishers didn’t suddenly become brilliant.

Who gets the cash?

So book sales have been unusually strong. Publishers are posting amazing returns. How come booksellers are sick and dying?

The financial results of chains like Barnes & Noble and Chapters/Indigo are nasty. The American Booksellers Association predicts at least 20% of its US members will fail this year. In recent weeks, a range of stores, including Talking Leaves in Buffalo, Strand in New York, Moe’s Books in Berkeley, have launched GoFundMe pages to stave off bankruptcy.

Given the spike in sales, shouldn’t bricks-and-mortar bookstores be swimming in cash?

Unfortunately not. It looks like Jeff Bezos, the world’s leading covid-profiteer, is bookselling’s big winner.

According to University of Toronto Press Distribution Services, which distributes Sutherland House and many other independent publishers, Amazon’s sales increased 51% for the period August-October.

Amazon’s business is so strong right now that its massive supply chain can’t handle the volumes. It’s impossible to get appointments to drop books at Amazon’s warehouse docks. They sit for weeks on pallets at UTP waiting for Amazon to answer the phone.

As a result of the gridlock, publishers have been unable to keep their books in stock at Amazon, and when the site runs out of a particular title, the a**holes post a message such as “usually ships in 1-2 months.” Like it’s our fault.

Buy local my friends.