Covid-19 has changed the way Chronicle Books publishes and markets its titles, and some of those changes could become permanent parts of its future, company president Tyrrell Mahoney said during an August 13 Zoom networking event hosted by the American Book Producers Association. Chronicle has long depended on bricks-and-mortar stores to showcase its books, with their distinctive designs, but the slump in sales through physical stores is causing the publisher to use more marketing resources to promote its titles online, she noted.
Some of the shifting of resources has been driven by a long-term planning process that Chronicle began a few months into the pandemic. “Here we are in a very, very tricky time,” Mahoney said. “Having so much of the marketplace close down overnight was scary.”
Chronicle’s immediate steps to stabilize the business included moving the pub dates of “quite a few books”—particularly those that depend on discovery in stores—as well as delaying some new publishing programs, Mahoney explained. The company, based in San Francisco, also had to make a quick pivot to working from home, which it did not have much experience with, she added. But since protocols were established, the process has gone well, and Chronicle will be more flexible in recruiting. It will look to retain some of the efficiencies it has gained from working remotely (such as quicker turnarounds) once the pandemic is over.
Moreover, Mahoney said, Chronicle has been forced to better understand how consumers interact with products online as online purchases accelerate. The publisher is examining “the shift away from bricks-and-mortar and what will that really look like six months from now, 12 months from now, two years from now,” she added. She doesn’t believe stores will go away entirely, but the marketplace will be different.
Because of new consumer buying patterns, Chronicle is developing videos, renderings, and other digital assets that can “emulate the touch and feel” of its books online, Mahoney said. It has taken part in virtual conferences, such as San Diego Comic-Con, and will continue to do so.
Mahoney believes author platforms will be more critical than ever. She said Chronicle will rely heavily on authors to make appearances in videos and other online events, and to become the voice of their promotions. The trade-off is that Chronicle is halting some long-standing marketing practices and is reexamining where it spends its money. The company, she noted, is looking for things “that move the needle now.”
Changes forced by the pandemic are also making Chronicle examine the way it sells. Mahoney pointed to the possibility of tightening up the publishing schedule to become more opportunistic. The company will explore ways to support its reps with materials that may not always include ARCs. It’s also likely to overhaul its print catalogue.
Chronicle has given more promotional support to its website as well. Sales through the site, driven mainly by jigsaw puzzles, have increased significantly during the pandemic months. As consumers buy more products on all types of sites, Mahoney would like to see Chronicle capture the direct sale rather than lose it to a rival.
Chronicle’s current list is roughly one-third children’s books; one-third art, food, and lifestyle; and one-third entertainment. That breadth has helped the company weather the pandemic. Children’s books (especially backlist), games, jigsaw puzzles, and adult coloring books have been strong sellers during the lockdowns. Puzzles are a strong suit for Chronicle’s distribution client Gallison (like Chronicle, part of the McEvoy Group), while another distribution client, Laurence King, is the original publisher of Johanna Basford, the adult coloring book queen. This month, Chronicle will begin distribution for Levine Querido, the new company created by former Scholastic executive Arthur Levine.
Until recently, digital products accounted for only a small part of Chronicle’s revenue, but sales of e-books and digital audiobooks have more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic, Mahoney said. The company formed Chronicle Audio in May 2019 and has upped its presence in e-books. One aim of the 2019 formation of the Chronicle Prism imprint was to build a more robust digital program, Mahoney added. Chronicle Prism is headed by Mark Tauber, who is also responsible for the audio division.
Putting more emphasis on e-commerce sales doesn’t mean that Chronicle is leaving physical stores behind. Indeed, the company continues to see new opportunities, recently making its first agreement with Walgreens to sell and promote puzzles over the holidays. Chronicle takes pride in creating displays for stores that don’t normally carry books, Mahoney said, to encourage them to give the company a try. Its goal is to open new key accounts and 2,000 new independent store “doors” every year.
Since the pandemic hit, Chronicle has seen its best bricks-and-mortar opportunities at retailers that also have strong online presences, Mahoney said. It has also seen good responses to children’s books, lifestyle books, and impulse items sold through mass merchandisers that were able to stay open by being deemed essential businesses. Puzzles, kids books, and coloring books have been the most popular categories at Barnes & Noble, primarily sold through BN.com. Mahoney said she has lots of faith in B&N CEO James Daunt and his plan to improve the chain, but added that success over the holidays “will come down to foot traffic.”
Part of Mahoney’s concern about physical retail is that not as many stores have reopened as she had hoped. About 60% of gift stores remain temporarily closed, she noted, and Chronicle’s business through independent bookstores is below typical levels.
Chronicle is also revamping its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. It has long tried to bring various voices to market, but Mahoney acknowledged that the company “never held ourselves accountable” if it failed to bring more diversity to either its workforce or its lists. In the future, a priority will be to hire more employees of color, and Chronicle will not fill a position until it has reached out to underserved communities, she said. Likewise, Chronicle will review its business partnerships and better align its community outreach programs to meet the needs of organizations that support people of color.
As for the business outlook for the rest of the year, Mahoney said it is impossible to predict what will happen. “I guess it is exciting,” she said. “It’s forcing all of us to rethink things and be more creative, but it is also a little unnerving and stressful.”