In the wake of a historically challenging year, a team of veteran publishing industry consultants this week released a free report exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. book publishing market.

The 50-page report, COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021, goes beyond the trade bookselling sector and looks at the broader social and economic changes the pandemic has forced, as well as offering insights on a range of book business sectors, including K-12 and higher education, digital media, and the library market.

"The implications of COVID-19 on the book publishing sector are both subtle and deep. Most trade publishers enjoyed strong revenues in 2020, but with hugely lopsided sales by category, reflecting short-term social realities more than structural industry developments," the report concludes. "But what are publishers to learn when they lift their heads to survey the surrounding landscape?"

The authors note that while the economy is forecast to grow in 2021, even amid considerable hardship and uncertainty, until the spread of the coronavirus is "significantly diminished for a sustained period of time" reliable economic forecasts are simply not possible.

"Given that publishing sales have increased in the economically-challenged environment of 2020, the prospects should be encouraging," the authors note in their conclusion. "Still, it remains to be seen whether the reading-favorable environment of stay-at-home living has been just a short-term stimulant or represents a longer-term trend; and whether books can hold their share of consumers’ discretionary time and budgets vs. the rapid growth of streaming media."

What are publishers to learn when they lift their heads to survey the surrounding landscape?

One of the key findings in the report is the need for publishers to rethink their digital strategies. "The changes in the retail landscape speak volumes. On the one hand, from now on publishers must treat bookselling as digital-first, physical-second," the report states. "Pre-COVID it was still valid for publishers to ponder 'where does Amazon fit within our reseller channel strategy?' The question henceforth is 'how do our reselling channels align with an online-first strategy (particularly for Amazon)?'"

With thee surge in library e-book lending during the pandemic (and no apparent negative impact on retail sales), the report also suggests that the trajectory of the digital library market may also change. "Libraries, both public and academic, want e-books more than they ever have before, from suppliers often inclined to treat digital formats as second-class citizens," the authors write. "Those tables could be turning."

The report was assembled by Cliff Guren, founder of Syntopical, a firm providing strategic planning and business development services to publishers, technology companies, and industry service providers; Thad McIlroy, an electronic publishing (and PW contributor) analyst whose website, The Future of Publishing, provides coverage of the publishing industry; and Steve Sieck, president of SKS Advisors, a consultancy firm specializing in business, professional and academic publishing and information services.

The 50-page report is available for download without cost here.