The Covid-19 pandemic has already had a big impact on independent publishing. Some changes—working at home, employee furloughs, curbside shopping—were thrust upon the industry suddenly. And though they weren’t part of a concerted effort to change old and inefficient business practices, they may indeed have that effect. Here are several new realities that are likely to survive the disease itself and lead to evolutionary leaps in book publishing.
1. Greater adoption of e-books
After years of holding steady and never becoming the print killer they were feared to be, e-book sales have taken off in the last few months—you can’t get sick downloading an e-book. Libraries also announced that from now on they are going to be concentrating more on digital. Many book lovers have said they hated the aesthetics of e-books and never felt comfortable with reading on screens. Now, however, after forced exposure, they’re changing their tune.
2. Fewer independent booksellers
After 2008, indie booksellers had a remarkable resurgence. Customers loved them because they were everything Amazon was not. Booksellers became smarter about inventory and customer service and fostering community ties. And now? Forced closures and furloughs and layoffs. Sadly, some of these great indie stores won’t survive. We cheer and celebrate the stores that will make it through, but we mourn the ones that won’t, leaving communities without a place where a bookseller can recommend what to read next.
3. Increased influence of wholesalers
The lockdown has been good for online business. Amazon created a small (and temporary) vacuum by switching its focus to household goods like food and cleaning supplies. To compensate, companies, particularly Ingram, have stepped up to help fulfill more orders both to bookstores and to consumers. Wholesalers are now more powerful than ever, and they will likely stay that way.
4. More competition for Amazon
Where there is real new competition to Amazon is in big-box retailers like Target and Walmart. They can sell large numbers of books and do, especially kids’ titles. And like Amazon, they can leverage demand in books to interest in toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and vice versa. In the online channel, Bookshop has helped indie booksellers grow their online business exponentially since the pandemic hit, and it could become an important source for sales of print books online.
5. A new world of virtual marketing
Just as resistance to e-books has faded, so too has resistance to online meetings. Zoom is no longer a substitute for the real thing, it is the real thing, and we’re all discovering its conveniences—namely its low cost and ability to unite people everywhere, not just those within driving distance. With stores closed, publishers are more intent on creating virtual communities. They are being forced to discover companies and associations that up to now have not been obvious publishing or promotion partners. As publishers move more to direct-to-consumer sales they may discover they don’t need conventional book distribution into the retail trade. The result? A new sales ecosystem that has nothing to do with the traditional sales and distribution foundations of our industry.
6. The domination of print-on-demand
The pandemic has made it inevitable POD will be an industry game changer. With fewer bookstores, it makes sense now for publishers to print their books at or near the source of fulfillment (via Lightning Source). I envision the day when print-on-demand machines are installed in metropolitan areas to offer on-the-spot, same-day manufacturing and delivery of any one of the six million books currently in publishers’ databases.
7. A proliferation of author publishers
All these new realities mean that a lot of smart, creative people who are spending more time at home will be producing more books. Is this a good thing? Not entirely, as it crowds the marketplace and may again create an unfortunate line between “real” and “hobby” publishing. But it does create a new industry of book reviewers, booktubers, and bookstagrammers monetizing their critical acumen and list curation.
There are many more ways the pandemic will likely affect publishing in the future. The course of the virus has been unpredictable and publishers need to be prepared for the unexpected.
Peter Goodman, publisher of Stone Bridge Press, is past chair of the Independent Book Publishers Association and host of the podcast Inside Independent Publishing (with IBPA). This column is based on a recent episode.