With Covid-19 continuing to spread across the country, the impact of the disease is being felt acutely in most parts of the book publishing industry.
Among the developments last week, another major publishing conference was canceled. The American Library Association called off its annual conference and meeting, which was scheduled for June 25–30 in Chicago. “We recognize the magnitude of this decision for the association and our membership,” said ALA executive director Tracie D. Hall. “This year, we were especially looking forward to the conference taking place in ALA’s hometown of Chicago. However, the well-being of our library community, staff, and fellow Chicago residents has to be the number one concern, and that drove our decision-making.”
The ALA conference was canceled just days after the organization made another unprecedented announcement, in which it urged libraries to close to slow the spread of Covid-19.
The coronavirus pandemic had already led to the cancellation of the London Book Fair and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. In addition, ReedPop was forced to move the dates of BookExpo and BookCon from late May to July 22–26. The organizer still plans to hold the event in New York City’s Javits Center. The change in dates was not enough to convince any of the Big Five New York publishers to attend, however. Penguin Random House had pulled out before the new dates were announced, and following the announcement, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster all withdrew. In a statement, HC noted that “the current situation and the unpredictability of the coronavirus in the coming months” forced the publisher to “make the difficult decision to withdraw” from the events.
ReedPop executives said they plan to go ahead with the show. “We are working closely with the Javits Center to ensure the health and safety of our customers,” said event director Jenny Martin. “We are all doing the best we can during these times, and what that means for BookExpo is to work hard to provide the place that gives our customers the tools to bounce back from this.”
As book sales slow, publishers have taken steps to protect their cash flow. Skyhorse Publishing cut its staff by 30% last week, with founder and CEO Tony Lyons explaining that given the circumstances he had no alternative. “We believe these staff cuts will enable us to continue to succeed as a company in the long run,” he told PW.
Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group CEO Jed Lyons opted to furlough most of his staff for two weeks (beginning March 23) rather than turn to layoffs. He said he believes the step is the most effective way to save the company’s cash flow.
Scholastic used a combination of furloughs, shortened work weeks, and voluntary unpaid leave to cut costs after the coronavirus outbreak led the publisher to revise its sales forecast downward in the quarter ending May 31. “We are implementing temporary staffing measures with staff across our U.S. organization, the majority of whom are located in 60 distribution centers and warehouses across the country,” said a spokesperson for the publisher, adding that Scholastic expects to resume normal operations soon.
Though the supply chain has held up fairly well, strains were beginning to show last week. Faced with a surge in demand for such items as household staples and health and medical goods, Amazon reduced its orders and extended its shipping times for other products, including books. Early last week, some books were showing a three-week delivery time.
And in response to the widespread closure of comics shops and distribution centers due to the pandemic, Diamond Comic Distributors, the largest distributor of comics in North America, has ceased the delivery of weekly published comics until further notice. Diamond will immediately stop the delivery of new comics with a release date of April 1 or later but will continue to fulfill certain orders from publications already in its warehouses.
Shelter-in-place policies instituted in several states have contributed to a growing number of store closings. Barnes & Noble has temporarily closed about 400 of its outlets to foot traffic, though most of those stores are still offering curbside pickup for online orders. Many independent booksellers have also been forced to close their physical stores and have been looking for ways to adapt to the coronavirus world. Many have seen a surge in online sales and some are offering home delivery and curbisde pickup to customers for online orders. With more states implementing edicts barring all but essential retail outlets from remaining open, booksellers have been applying for waivers to allow them to operate in some fashion.
Riverstone Books in Pittsburgh applied for an exemption from a March 19 Pennsylvania-wide order to close all businesses that are not “life-sustaining.” On March 23, the bookstore received that exemption and is continuing to take orders while offering curbside pickup and home delivery, along with free shipping. “We believe books are essential to life,” owner Barbara Jeremiah wrote to customers, informing them of the exemption.
At Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., owner Janet Geddis has seen a jump in online sales but is already preparing for circumstances to change. “I’m not sure how long business will be brisk, so I am sketching out various scenarios depending on what happens in the coming days, weeks, and months,” she said.
One good bit of good news was that unit sales of print books for the week ended March 21 were even with the previous week at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. A huge gain in unit sales in the juvenile nonfiction category helped to offset declines in adult nonfiction and juvenile fiction. Sales of adult fiction rose 4% over the previous week.
The 66% jump in juvenile nonfiction unit sales was led by the education/reference/language segment, where sales soared 186% over the previous week. Sales of games/activities/hobbies rose by 117%. Top titles were My First Learn-to-Write Workbook and Paint by Sticker Kids.
To move or not move
One of the thorniest questions facing publishers is whether to move release dates for titles set to be published over the next few months, given that many bookstores will be closed and opportunities for promoting the books will be nearly nonexistent. But delaying publication is not so easy, publishers and agents agreed.
“It’s kind of a nightmare changing pub dates,” said one high-level publicist at a major house, who requested anonymity. Explaining that it’s tricky to reschedule a title even in normal times, the publicist noted that moving a lot of titles simultaneously isn’t feasible. With titles scheduled well into the fall, there are bandwidth issues—there won’t be staff available to market and promote titles moved from spring to fall, since they are already working on a full slate of fall books—and other, more practical issues. The publicist asked whether moving a pub date would even help, since no one knows how long the pandemic will go on. “It seems like this could be the new normal for awhile,” she said.
Among the major houses, S&S looks to be the one most aggressively moving titles into other months, or seasons, to avoid publishing during the coronavirus outbreak. Adam Rothberg, S&S’s senior v-p of corporate communications, estimated that the publisher has already moved about 145 of its adult titles. He said the house’s aim is to “maximize sales for each title we publish in the marketplace as it exists today.” On the issue of timing, Rothberg said S&S’s publishers are working with the sales and supply chain teams, as well as with authors and agents, to decide “which books can be successfully published by keeping to their original publication date, and which books will benefit from being moved.”
Jennifer Weltz, an agent at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, said she has 12 books coming out before the end of May but added that there are too many unknowns to assume moving pub dates would help the situation. “The problem is that we don’t know how long this is going to go,” she noted. Instead of focusing on schedule shifts, Weltz is trying to be creative about promoting the titles coming out. “We’re really trying to figure out virtual events to bring people’s attention to the books. All publishers have been amazing. I find everybody is working hard, being supportive, understanding, and trying to innovate. Maybe I’m a Pollyanna, but that’s where I’m going with this.”