When PW surveyed six independent publishers scattered across the country about how business has gone so far this year, the responses were mixed. Three companies said sales were up through mid-August compared to the same period a year ago, while the other three reported sales drops. There was a bit of a consensus on some other issues: the weakest-selling category has been fiction, online sales have grown, and the biggest concern heading into the more-than-ever-crucial fourth quarter is how the supply chain will hold up.

“Overall, sales, net of returns, are up, but with a lot of volatility,” said Todd Bottorff, president and publisher of Nashville-based Turner Publishing. Sales gains in adult nonfiction have offset declines in fiction, and gains in online sales have largely countered declines through physical stores. “It was a white-knuckle ride, but it has turned out great,” he noted of this year’s sales pattern. Sales through Amazon dried up when it prioritized fulfilling orders for household staples, but orders improved enough that Turner “has ended up okay,” he added.

Turner has seen strong sales of pandemic-related books, led by Marc Siegel’s False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear, and Bottorff has high hopes for Siegel’s upcoming Covid: The Politics of Fear and the Power of Science. Bottorff has also seen growing interest in children’s activity books, outdoor guides, and a book on the founding fathers, leading him to surmise that people are looking to educate their kids, find ways to stay busy, and get ready for the election.

Red Wheel/Weiser of Newburyport, Mass., is another publisher that has seen sales growth this year. After a strong start to 2020, sales plunged in April when Amazon deprioritized book orders, according to president Michael Kerber. “We panicked for a couple of weeks,” he added. But Amazon geared back up, and sales through the e-commerce giant were up 38% in the May-August period. The improvement at Amazon was coupled with gains at RWW’s mind/body/spirit accounts, where sales have improved over the past two months.

Kerber said the pandemic has not changed RWW’s sales mix, though he pointed to a jump in sales of oracle decks from Rockpool Publishing, one of RWW’s distribution clients. RWW’s bestseller for the year has been the 20th-anniversary edition of The Book of Awakening, which published in January. Sales at its Weiser Books imprint were up 35% through June, with both frontlist and backlist titles on tarot, astrology, and various magic traditions doing well. Sales of business books are down, though Kerber said he has seen a “few spikes of interest in our human resources and diversity training titles.”

With overall sales up 12% through mid-August, Kerber said he hasn’t seen a need to alter RWW’s publishing program to add topical titles. Fall books include Witch Hunt: A Traveler’s Guide to the Power and Persecution of the Witch by Kristen J. Sollée and Opening to Grief: Finding Your Way from Loss to Peace by Claire B. Willis and Marnie Crawford Samuelson.

Cider Mill Press in Kennebunkport, Maine, also reported a sales gain for the year through mid-August. Founder and publisher John Whalen said sales in the period were up almost 10%, and, since the company had a strong 2019, he is happy with the results. Cookbooks, cocktail books, adult activity books and children’s books—Cider Mill’s core offerings—have been the top sellers since the pandemic broke, and huge gains in online sales have offset declines through physical retail.

Whalen attributed part of Cider Mill’s gains this year to a move to use four commission rep groups, which he said are doing an “outstanding job.” Digital items account for only a small portion of the publisher’s revenue, but it has been doing more print-on-demand for backlist titles.

Cider Mill’s impulse titles have been hurt by the closure of stores and museums, and Whalen noted that every title designed for impulse shopping has been negatively affected by the lack of in-store browsing. The publisher has had great success with its edition of The Night Before Christmas, and this Christmas it is introducing The Night Before Christmas Press & Play. Cider Mills has already sold out its first two printings of the title. Whalen is also high on The Decadent Vegetable Cookbook.

The closure of libraries and decisions by stores and libraries to move events online has led to a significant sales decline at NewSouth Books, according to publisher Suzanne La Rosa. “Events revenues are a big contributor to our business,” she noted. “We have a revenue shortfall that cannot be corrected until everyone is back to business as normal. Virtual events have failed to be productive for us.”

While NewSouth’s online and e-book sales have shown gains in the year, they haven’t been enough to compensate for declines at stores and libraries, La Rosa said. Asked about the company’s softest category, she replied, “Fiction, fiction, fiction.”

Still, NewSouth, based in Montgomery, Ala., has had some bright spots. June sales were up, led by the release of Stealing Our Democracy by former Alabama governor Don Siegelman. Other titles on topical subjects that have seen sales bumps recently include Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement by Steve Suitts, The Slave Who Went to Congress by Frye Gaillard and Marti Rosner, and American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World by Christina Proenza-Coles (which received a plug from a blog post by Wynton Marsalis).

La Rosa said recent orders have been good for a number of fall titles, including Fourteenth Colony by Mike Bunn and Saving America’s Amazon by Ben Raines. She added that if the current ordering pattern continues, NewSouth will finish the year with sales down by not more than 20%.

A decline in sales of literary fiction, caused largely by the closing of bookstores and libraries, has not been offset by online and digital sales gains at Pegasus Books, according to publisher Claiborne Hancock. “Library and bookstore closures caused plenty of disruption for us,” he noted. History and crime fiction are traditionally strong areas for New York City’s Pegasus, and they have held up. Meghan and Harry by Lady Colin Campbell was a surprise bestseller.

Similar to other publishers, Pegasus has seen orders pick up from Amazon as well as from Barnes & Noble. Orders from Baker & Taylor and Ingram, however, remain down. Pegasus may see a sales bump for Amazon Woman when author Darcy Gaechter makes an appearance on the Today show on September 14. The title came out in March, but her Today spot was postponed because of the Covid outbreak. Hancock said he is hopeful business will improve as the holiday approaches.

Falling sales to its trade and educational accounts led to a 15% decline in total sales at Square One Publishers through mid-August, said publisher Rudy Shur. Sales at Amazon have been “a roller-coaster ride,” he added, and sales through wholesalers have been “relatively low.”

Square One, of Garden City, N.Y., has always done big business in nontraditional outlets, and that channel remains steady, Shur said. Its strongest subject areas have been in health and spirituality. E-book sales have been steady, and the publisher is just beginning to see meaningful sales from its digital audio program.

Shur is hoping for an uptick in sales to trade accounts and through wholesalers, but he isn’t counting on it. He is, however, optimistic about the prospects of a revised edition of Square One’s Black Health Matters title, and about the potential of a new book, Matchsticks: An Education in Black & White, a memoir by Fred Engh, the first white student to attend an all-Black state college in Maryland, in 1961.

Looking ahead

While overall book sales have remained surprisingly strong during the pandemic, Shur at Square One believes that much of those gains have been driven by blockbuster titles from the large houses. “It is still a very difficult time for most people involved in our business—from printers to bookstores to indie publishers,” he said.

Pressure on different parts of the supply chain was seen as a concern by other publishers as well. RWW’s Kerber said he is most worried about what another lockdown would mean for his bricks-and-mortar accounts, including Barnes & Noble, and what the loss of discoverability would do to holiday sales.

Whalen, too, said that Cider Mill won’t have a good end to the year if retailers don’t remain open.

Though Amazon has certainly bounced back since the plunge in book sales in the earliest days of the pandemic, some publishers said they are concerned about how a huge spike in holiday orders could impact the e-tailer. Amazon’s ability to manage its supply chain is at the top of the worry list of Bottorff at Turner. NewSouth’s La Rosa also pointed to possible capacity issues at Amazon. “We need increased orders from Amazon in order to offset decreases in other revenue channels,” she said.

Looking beyond 2020, the publishers’ main concerns are about the stability of physical stores and the general uncertainty over the course of the pandemic. La Rosa said the approval of a vaccine could lead to a general economic recovery, but if more lockdowns are necessary next year, they could pose real problems.

“I simply want to know when the economy will reopen at a level approximating the pre-Covid era,” said Hancock at Pegasus. “We really need a return to normalcy at some point in 2021.”

Those sentiments were echoed by publishers who replied to a recent survey conducted by the Independent Publishers Caucus. According to IPC director Anna Thorn, members believe they can make it through 2020 due to a combination of PPP loans and online sales, but a wide range of presses expressed deep concern about 2021. Similar to publishers interviewed by PW, IPC members are worried about the future of bookstores and what the state of the economy will be next year. In addition, IPC members worry about how they will break out new authors in 2021.

“While backlist sales have been exceeding expectations for many publishers, and there are some blockbusters,” Thorn told PW, “the all-important question of discovering new voices is so far the great casualty of the Covid era.”