Though many independent publishers interviewed by PW last week reported a drop in sales during the Covid-19 pandemic, several said sales are—surprisingly—up for the year, buoyed by strong interest in backlist titles, direct sales to consumers, and enhanced digital initiatives. Most also said their staffs are working remotely and will continue to do so until at least the end of August. Some are allowing limited staff to go to their offices irregularly to fulfill orders and do necessary administrative tasks.
The staff of New Directions, which is based in New York City, has scattered to various locales, said Mieke Chew, codirector of publicity, who temporarily relocated to New England. “April was a really hard month, but since then it is getting better,” she noted. “We are at two-thirds of our usual sales. A lot is coming from Amazon—unfortunately, as what we’d most like to see is a strong comeback from the indies—and we are working with Ingram more closely than ever. B&N is down substantially for us.”
Chew said core backlist titles are driving sales. New Directions has also seen a big hike in e-book sales, which were up 10%–25% through May, and the company has recently started offering audiobooks. A new subscription service focused on new paperback releases dubbed“new classics” has attracted almost 100 customers, she added.
Chew said New Directions is also cognizant of the need to keep working closely with bookstores to ensure that they stay in business and has been providing authors for virtual events. One such event, for Mexican novelist Fernanda Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season, was hosted by Brookline Booksmith in Boston and drew 380 viewers.
Europa Editions also highlighted the importance of independent bookstores to its vitality. “We rely on independent bookstores to market and merchandise our books to readers,” said Michael Reynolds, Europa’s editor-in-chief. “They count, over time, much more than their sales numbers on any given title might suggest. They are book discovery engines.” He added that Europa “keenly felt the effects of their closures or partial closures in April and May.”
In response, Europa placed a renewed emphasis on marketing and announced #OurBrilliantFriends, an online event to discuss the work of Elena Ferrante. Set for June 23, the event is meant to build anticipation for the publication of the English translation of Ferrante’s Lying Life of Adults, Europa’s lead title for the year, whose original publication date of June 9 was moved to September 1. Reynolds explained that the pub date change was made so that “bricks-and-mortar stores, especially independent bookstores, wouldn’t be cut out of the equation by online retailers.”
One positive change Reynolds cited was booksellers’ newfound willingness to accept digital galleys in lieu of print copies, which can be excessively expensive for independent publishers to produce and ship.
Reynolds also said that Europa has decided not to renew its New York City office lease when it expires in August, nor will it look for other permanent space anytime soon. “While we can get away with a more flexible, geographically diverse working space, virtual or otherwise, I think we should do so,” he added. “I don’t see any reason to put my team’s health at risk right now. We work well remotely; in fact, as a publisher with half of its staff in Europe, we are well accustomed to working remotely. Not having to pay rent on a New York office space over the next few months will put us in good stead during what will certainly be a hard period as the book retail crisis of the past couple of months filters through to book publishers. It’s not ideal—I am a great believer in the need for colleagues, friends, family, human beings to share physical space with one another in order to really understand one another and their common endeavors—but the largely officeless routine is working pretty smoothly for us right now.”
Other Press, which also has offices in New York City, hopes to have its staff all back in place on September 1. “No one is in the office now,” said Bill Foo, chief financial officer for the publisher. “For the most part, everyone’s been able to work remotely via Zoom meetings.”
Foo noted that, going into the pandemic, the company was having a “stellar year,” with net sales through March up more than 26% from the same period in 2019, and with business at independent bookstores up 62%. But as the nation went on lockdown and Amazon deprioritized books, sales dropped. April sales were down 33.7% from the previous year, and May sales were down 62%.
“Only 200 of our usual 600-plus indie customers managed to place very modest orders,” Foo said. He added that the press’s focus has been on shipping books, and that year-to-date returns are much lower than usual. He is expecting returns to jump as bookstores start pulling titles.
The office of Brooklyn’s Akashic Books is open on an extremely limited basis to fulfill orders or other urgent mailings, and it’s staffed by employees who live within walking or biking distance. “No one else is going in, and at the moment it still feels premature to set a schedule for reopening the office,” said editorial director Ibrahim Ahmad. “Despite the pervasive uncertainty hanging over every aspect of the business, in terms of actual dollars and cents, we’re feeling cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to weather the storm.”
Ahmad said Akashic has “a number of perennial top sellers that continue to pull their weight.” In addition, it will soon launch its LyricPop series of children’s picture books, based on the lyrics of popular songs, such as the Beach Boys’“Good Vibrations” and Otis Redding’s “Respect.” “We hope [the series] will become a cornerstone of our list over the years ahead,” he added.
Daniel Slager, CEO and publisher of Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis, reported that sales of Braiding Sweetgrass, a seven-year-old title by Robin Kimmerer, are “lifting revenues this year,” noting that the book, which calls for a return to a simpler life, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for trade paper for more than 16 consecutive weeks. Sales in all formats are 400,000 copies.
Overall, April saw a “dramatic slowdown” for Milkweed, Slager said, describing it as “a disappointment but not devastating.” May sales “soared,” he noted, and June is “robust.” He added that he was “moved by how committed [distributor] PGW and Ingram have been, right through the darkest days of the pandemic.”
The staff of Coffee House Press, another Minneapolis house, has been working from home since March. However, one person is allowed to go into the office at a time to pick up mail, do bookkeeping, arrange deposits, and replenish supplies of books that people are sending out from their homes to reviewers, booksellers, and those who have purchased them directly. “I have no idea when we will be going back to the office,” said publisher Chris Fischbach. “Could be September, could be much later. We’re preparing for both possibilities. We can afford to be cautious, so we will be.”
Coffee House’s sales (print and e-book) are up 21% so far this year over the same period in 2019. “I can’t discern any particular reason why, other than randomness and our team’s hard work, combined with the books being great and some authors contributing with publicity,” Fischbach said about the nonprofit’s sales gain. Noting that Coffee House’s fiscal year starts in July, he added that he expects a “challenging year,” particularly regarding financial donations from institutions and individuals.
Graywolf Press, also based in Minneapolis, is also continuing to work remotely, and will do so through August. “It took some time to adjust our systems to working remotely, as I’m sure is the case for every organization, but the staff has adapted beautifully,” said senior publicity manager Caroline Nitz. “Though of course we miss working in the office together. We’ve even found this to be a generative time for new ideas and new initiatives, especially around Graywolf-hosted virtual events, which we’re excited to move forward with in the coming weeks and months.”
Nitz said the press has seen a surge in sales of Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book-length poem Citizen in the weeks since the killing of George Floyd in the publisher’s hometown. “A 22nd printing is now underway and will include additional names to the ‘In Memory Of’ section of the book, including those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” she explained. “Because sales of Citizen have spiked in recent weeks, Graywolf is donating a portion of that net revenue—$5,000 each—to five Twin Cities organizations that are doing essential work in our community.”
Editor’s note: Interviews with eight more independent publishers will appear in the June 29 issue.