The growing impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the publishing industry came into view for the this week as some independent bookstores reported slowing sales and the number of book festival and author tour cancellations rose.
At Books, Inc. locations in the Bay Area, sales began to decline last week. With 10 locations across the Bay Area, the company is the region’s oldest independent book retailer as well as one of the largest. Two locations at San Francisco International Airport were the most severely affected, but the eight neighborhood locations also had fewer customers. The downturn prompted the company to respond with a digital campaign offering customers free shipping on online orders.
“For folks that are self-quarantining or don’t feel comfortable in the stores, we want to reach out to them, continue to serve them, and let everyone know how meaningful their support is especially important when things are so disruptive,” said Books, Inc. CEO Andy Perham. The program launched on Tuesday, receiving a strong customer response within a matter of hours.
Some of the most stringent measures to deal with the virus have been taken in Washington State. Like Books, Inc, Third Place Books began offering a shipping incentive in the hopes of offsetting a drop in sales. Managing partner Robert Sindelar said, “free shipping has seen a nice uptick in online sales. Customers are sharing it on social media and really seem to appreciate it. Our overall net sales are still down, however.”
Not all booksellers were eager to embrace the digital push. Julie Beddingfield, owner and manager of Inkwood Books Haddonfield, N.J., said she was reluctant to promote online shopping. “I fear that I might lose them as customers, ultimately,” said Beddingfield. “I encourage people to call us up and we can handsell to them over the phone and then deliver their books. I might even throw in a galley or something else as a sweetener.”
The change in consumer behavior came swiftly, and was still unevenly felt across the country. After strong weekend sales at indies in New York City last weekend, sales were down at Posman Books in the heavily-touristed Chelsea Market and Rockefeller Center. In an e-mail, management wrote that they were focusing on measures to ensure employee health. Across the Midwest, where reports of coronavirus infections are still lower, booksellers have been less seriously impacted thus far.
However, March marks the beginning of the lucrative spring bookselling season, with author events providing the backbone for in-store sales and major literary festivals. As recently as Wednesday, in-store author events were drawing audiences at some stores, but the first sign of author tour cancellations were beginning to ripple across the country.
Between Tuesday and Thursday, approximately 10 major American festivals were postponed or canceled until next year, including the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the Virginia Festival of the Book, and the Tucson Festival of Books. Major international festivals, including the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, were also canceled after major publishers pulled out prior to President Trump’s announcement of a European travel ban on March 11.
“We are making decisions about event attendance on a case by case basis, always keeping the safety and wellbeing of our staff, authors and customers as a top priority," said Lauren Donovan, senior director of publicity at Scholastic.
While authors scaled back due to travel concerns, some came up with alternative ways to reach readers. Early this week, graphic novelist Gene Yang canceled an eight-city tour for his newly released young adult title Dragon Hoops (First Second). In lieu of touring, he devised a cartoon tour, in which he releases a cartoon each day on social media.
“As one small individual, how do you approach something so big?” asked Yang. “For me as a cartoonist and an author I just have to worry about what I’m connected to and if everybody does that, we’ll have a bunch of our bases covered. I’m connected to the book community and the comic community.” In addition to the daily comics, Yang is signing book plates to mail to the stores where had planned to read.
On Tuesday, the nation’s eight regional bookselling associations were informed by the American Booksellers Association that staff would not be attending spring forums in person. In a letter to booksellers on Wednesday, newly appointed ABA CEO Alison Hill voiced the concerns of many booksellers about the economic challenges they face, while assuring members that she would advocate for their needs.
“Although the renaissance of indie bookselling in recent years has been reason to celebrate, bookstores are still struggling and booksellers continue to lose sleep at night, counting the long list of threats — like rising costs, an election year, a pandemic, a looming recession, and Amazon.com — like sheep,” Hill said.
At Books, Inc., Perham said that regional associations have a vital role in providing support for member bookstores. “I see it as a community thing and the regionals are playing a big part of it,” said Perham. “It’s one of the things I love about the bookselling community.”
Despite the likely challenges ahead in the coming weeks and months, Perham said he believes the store will emerge healthily on the other side of the crisis. “People still need books and they still want books, so anything we can do to connect with people outside our stores is vital,” Perham said. “In our 170 year history at Books, Inc., there have been earthquakes, fires, and national recessions. We’re resilient and creative I have no doubt that we’ll come through this.”