When Amazon began deprioritizing book sales due to the new coronavirus outbreak in March, Vermont publisher Chelsea Green moved quickly to find a workaround. Using print-on-demand capabilities through its new warehousing and distribution partner, the publisher shipped copies to a third-party Amazon vendor who sells the publisher’s hurt books and he sold them on their behalf.
As a result, Invisible Rainbow, a book about the effects of electricity and EMF radiation on human health, has sold a few thousand copies, with sales unabated by the interruption to one of the publisher’s most essential sales channels.
“It was an incredible pivot,” said co-founder and publisher Margo Baldwin, “But a book that’s selling a couple hundred copies a day? We had to sell it.”
Nor was Baldwin’s quick action an accident. During the 2008 financial crisis, publishers of DIY, craft, and simple living books were sustained by a growing audience of readers looking for ways to live simply and inexpensively during a challenging time.
For Chelsea Green, the titles that are selling—and the company’s overall numbers—are proof that coronavirus is shaping up to have the same effect. Chelsea Green books on homesteading, fermentation, foraging, and cooking drove a rise in direct web sales of 136% in March and sales through that channel are up 65% this year compared with last. Total sales for Chelsea are up 13% so far this year in 2020 over the comparable period last year.
At Massachusetts-based Storey Publishing, the first wave of coronavirus concerns in March sparked interest in Steven Buhner’s Herbal Antivirals. The book does not purport to offer a cure for the virus, but does offer advice on herbal immune supports, something which drove strong sales of the book, according to publisher Deborah Balmuth. “We have shipped 7,500 copies of the book this year,” Balmuth said. “We only shipped 4,500 last year.”
While Storey has long had a customer base for books like Backyard Homestead and Root Cellars, children’s books have been a standout as consumers transition from initial fears of the coronavirus to figuring out ways to do activities with kids while schools are closed. The publisher’s Backyard Explorer series and Anatomy series, including books Ocean Anatomy, and Nature Anatomy have all sold well, something that Balmuth could anticipate based on their consistent popularity with homeschoolers.
“We’ve always been about teaching skills, and the movement toward screen-free time and getting kids to use their hands, and discover the pleasure of those things,” Balmuth said. “It’s about kids engaging in learning skills for life. How many people are lamenting right now that they don’t know how to sew?”
Sewing and Origami Titles
Sewing is just the skill that C&T publisher Amy Barrett-Daffin in poised to share with readers. C&T was prepared to transition to a socially distanced world by mid-March after one of the company’s co-owners came down with what they believe to have been coronavirus and asked Barrett-Daffin to devise a plan for working remotely.
C&T, which specializes in quilting and sewing books, saw strong sales through craft store retailers that remained open into early April, and has also seen a boost in online orders through large specialty companies like Missouri Star Quilt Company.
The publisher has added beginner catalogs to its website and is driving sales by doing a large amount of social media outreach through its authors. “Our authors are used to travelling and teaching so when we say we’d like you to make a video, we have the ability to do it,” said Barrett-Daffin.
Along with books like Jo Avery’s New Patchwork and Quilting Basics, the publisher has also seen interest in craft, doodling, and coloring books that are part of a Fun Stitch Studio webpage that also includes free materials for kids.
More than half of Tuttle’s top 100-selling titles are craft-focused at the moment, led by two closely-linked products. Origami books and paper packs which include colorful papers that can be used in arts and crafts top Tuttle’s list for a simple reason, according to sales and marketing director Christopher Johns. “You don’t need any equipment to do origami. That’s the beauty of it.” My First Origami Kit, which is geared for children and includes instructions for how to do origami with small hands, is one of the many titles that Tuttle is having success with.
With a focus on titles relating to East Asia, Tuttle was hoping for a boost with this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, which have now been postponed until 2021, but Johns said the increased interest in titles based on stay-at-home regulations is offsetting the impact. Along with origami, books on doodling, manga, and Japanese knitting, and Finger Knitting for Kids, are all seeing interest among readers, as are puzzles.
Puzzles and More Puzzles
Tuttle was just beginning to sell puzzles in time for the Olympics, with two slated for release; one with Mt. Fuji and the other of a Tokyo cityscape. “Our pre-orders right now are crazy,” Johns said. “They’re not going to touch the shelves because the demand is already there.”
An ironic puzzle is proving to be a bestseller for Gibbs Smith. Cabin Fever is one of a slate of puzzles that are moving so fast that sales director Sarah Rucker said, “we are blowing through inventory.” Unlike books, puzzles are sold non-returnable and prepaid, which has helped create positive cash flow for the publisher. “It’s something that everyone wants and we’re happy to supply them. We think that they’ll last. Once you start doing puzzles, you’ll keep doing puzzles,” Rucker said.
Along with puzzles, Gibbs-Smith’s director of marketing Lareen Strong said sales of books on the outdoors, especially for parents and children, are increasing. “Camping books, books on how to cook outside, hiking, and other things for children and adults are things people will want as the weather gets warmer. People will want to get outside and also isolate,” she said.
Kid and Family Favorites
Cedar Lane’s Paul McGahren is looking to provide “information inspiration” through craft titles that work for readers who are spending time in isolation, and is seeing the greatest interest in books that use what is easily at hand, from wood scraps to spare pieces of paper.
“We’re seeing more of the fundamental hand tool types of books sell as you get more people wanting to try things who never have before,” McGahren said. Introductory and easy-to-make titles like Make Your Own Cutting Boards are selling well for the press, but so are some advanced titles like CNC Router Essentials, which require the time to learn that readers now have.
Along with woodworking titles, McGahren is seeing interest in projects parents can do with kids like Dinosaurs to Crochet, Wooden Toy Spacecraft, and Wooden Dinky Toys. Along with growing sales for new titles, Cedar Lane is also seeing interest in backlist books, with a 60% of sales accounted for by backlist titles.
DK was in the midst of reissuing newly updated versions of what DK Life publishing director Mary-Clare Jerram calls, “the three backlist craft bibles.” The Sewing Book and The Knitting Book were both republished in the last two years and The Crochet Book will be reissued this fall. The books were first published following the 2008 crisis, and Jerram said the publisher is once-again turning to them as stalwarts, making them an integral part of a newly launched online DK Stay Home Hub that has free content for readers. In addition, DK subsidiary Alpha Books is republishing older titles, reaching into the backlist for everything from Idiot’s Guides to titles on fermenting, raising chickens, doing origami, and drawing.
Tween-oriented titles are among the standouts for Fox Chapel Publishing, whose doodling books Notebooks Doodle Go Girl! and Notebook Doodles Girl Power! have both gone into reprints. “I think it’s parents looking to buy those books to reinforce to their kids and friends that there’s a lot of positive still out there,” said Fox Chapel president David Miller.
Along with the doodling titles, the Rock Art Handbook and Making Pipe Cleaner Pets are a sign of families looking for simple, creative ways to do activities with kids. “That’s what’s really pulling through,” Miller said. “How do I keep my kids busy? People are looking for things that are inexpensive where they don’t have to go out of their home and track things down. Those titles have suddenly now surged.”
For Cedar Lane’s McGahren, that simplicity is the point of craft and DIY titles. “I don’t think anything bad can come out of doing crafts. Getting creative, putting your hands to work, getting your hands going, it’s all good. Crafts is always bubbling under the surface and we’re looking at what the situation are where it can be actualized in someone’s life. It’s a form of therapy.”