Even before the coronavirus struck the U.S. in March, and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police led to widespread calls for new social justice efforts, there were signs that 2020 would be industry-changing for book publishing and bookselling.
The year began with the January publication by Flatiron Books of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The novel, in which a bookseller from Mexico flees to America with her son to escape a drug cartel, soon became a lightning rod as its critics said it was an inaccurate and stereotypical depiction of Mexico and Mexicans; Cummins came under attack for appropriation, as she is neither Mexican nor an immigrant. Flatiron canceled part of Cummins’s tour, apologized for mistakes in the publishing process, and hired Nadxieli Nieto, editor and former program director of literary awards at PEN America, as editor-at-large to acquire upmarket and literary fiction, nonfiction, and YA, with a focus on work by Latinx and BIPOC authors.
In early March, scores of employees at Hachette Book Group staged a walkout to protest the acquisition of Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing. The employees were angered that HBG’s Grand Central Publishing division had made the deal despite longtime accusations that Allen had molested his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was seven years old. Allen has denied those charges. After first standing by the decision to publish the book, HBG executives ultimately dropped the title, which Skyhorse Publishing later published.
On June 8, about 1,300 workers across book and media industries, most of them junior staffers, took action to protest the deaths of Floyd and “the many other Black lives lost to racist violence in America,” according to a statement released by the organizing group. The action was a response to emails CEOs of the Big Five publishing companies sent to their employees addressing the continuing protests and the current political climate—statements the group considered inadequate in addressing issues of white supremacy, racist capitalism, and the killings of Black people at the hands of police.
The problems with the lack of diversity in publishing were further highlighted by the social media campaign #PublishingPaidMe, which revealed the inequities in advances paid to Black authors compared to white writers by encouraging writers to publicly share the advances they received. Though there was some debate about what #PublishingPaidMe actually quantified, it was generally acknowledged that authors of color have received lower advances than white authors.
As in the case of Flatiron with the Dirt backlash and HBG with the outcry over the Allen memoir, many publishers did in fact respond to the various calls for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Penguin Random House US acknowledged that, though the company has made progress in diversifying its workforce and the types of books it publishes, it must do more on both counts. After conducting an analysis of the demographics of its employees, PRH announced a host of actions it was undertaking to diversify its publishing ranks and to publish more books by people of color. Hachette Book Group also reviewed the diversity of its workforce and authors, and shared the report with employees as the basis for setting goals for hiring more diverse staff and publishing more diverse voices. HBG also created Legacy Lit, a new imprint that will focus on books by BIPOC writers, which is headed by Krishan Trotman.
Among new executives hired by the big houses were journalist Dana Canedy, named publisher of Simon & Schuster’s adult publishing group, succeeding Jonathan Karp, and Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, appointed senior v-p and publisher of PRH’s Pantheon and Schocken Books imprints.
Publishers also responded to demands that they raise starting salaries, which, among other things, would make it more economically feasible for BIPOC and others from marginalized or low-income communities to consider a career in publishing. Of the Big Five, all but HarperCollins announced they have, or are planning to, lift entry-level salaries to at least $40,000. A handful of independent publishers also raised entry-level wages, including Beacon Press and Grove Atlantic.
The fight for racial and social justice led to a boom in sales of books about race, much of which was funneled through the approximately 130 Black-owned and African American–focused bookstores in the U.S. The rush led to many of the most popular titles, such as Beacon’s White Fragility, which sold over 850,000 print copies, and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, which sold over 770,000 copies, going out of stock and leaving many booksellers unable to fulfill many orders for several weeks.
The surge in demand revealed what Black booksellers have been telling publishers for years: there simply are not enough books in print or titles available to meet the needs of BIPOC readers. Several booksellers benefited both from sales and the renewed attention. Mahogany Books in Washington, D.C., saw a 400% increase in sales for June 2020 over June 2019, and sold 100,000 books in the 45 days after Floyd’s death. Marcus Books, one of the country’s best-known and oldest Black bookstores, founded in 1960 in San Francisco and now located in Oakland, had been struggling financially early in the year and had turned to GoFundMe to raise cash, eventually netting $261,000. Numerous new Black-owned bookstores opened this year, including Semicolon in Chicago and Fulton Street Books & Coffee in Tulsa, Okla., while several more, such as Niche Book Bar in Milwaukee, are in the works.
Upending industry norms
As important as activism was to forcing industry changes, the coronavirus also left an indelible mark on trade publishing, in some cases accelerating trends that were already gaining momentum. Online sales surged, e-book sales rebounded, and digital audio sales continued to grow at double-digit rates while sales through bricks-and-mortar bookstores tumbled. Through October, bookstore sales were down 31% compared to the same period in 2019. In contrast, after giving publishers a scare by cutting book orders at the beginning of the pandemic to focus on essential items such as medicine and household staples, Amazon enjoyed record sales throughout the year. Amazon had total sales of $96 billion in the third quarter, up from $70 billion for the same period in 2019, and the fourth quarter is expected to be the best sales period in the company’s history.
With auspicious timing, Bookshop.org launched in January, to try to counter Amazon by offering independent bookstores an improved online commerce hub. After many bookstores were forced to close in early spring due to pandemic-related lockdowns, Bookshop provided an online option for their customers. Profits from sales at Bookshop support expansion of the site, including abroad (the site launched in the U.K. in November), and are funneled back to affiliate independent bookstores. The site has sold more than $50 million in books. “We’ve earned $10,162,000 for bookstores this year, including direct store sales and our profit pool,” said CEO Andy Hunter. “Our next profit pool distribution will happen in January, when we’ll distribute over $2 million to stores.” As of late December, 1,000 stores had signed up as affiliates in the U.S.
Bookshop’s success was part of a larger online shift at indie booksellers. Digital audio bookseller Libro.fm reported a 48% increase in bookstore partnerships last year over 2019, and now works with 1,321 stores. The number of units sold jumped by 200% over 2019, Libro.fm said.
Barnes & Noble was looking to revive its fortunes under the leadership of new CEO James Daunt when 2020 began. The national lockdowns forced B&N, at one point, to close all but a handful of its locations. Daunt used the forced closures as an opportunity to refurbish many of its stores. Book buying at the chain was also changed, with the company shedding numerous buyers at its corporate offices in favor of granting many of its more than 625 stores more autonomy in buying front- and backlist titles that suit their local communities. Another focus of the company is streamlining its supply chain and reducing overstock and returns. Daunt said that local engagement is the key to winning customers away from competitors, and this must be done both in stores and at home, which can be done digitally and through better delivery options, such as curbside pickup, which proved especially popular when stores were closed to in-store browsing. Daunt expected to finish 2020 with sales no more than 20% below those of 2019.
The coronavirus also led to large numbers of employees leaving central offices to work remotely. While both employees and employers thought the shift would be temporary—some initial return-to-the-office targets were after Memorial Day—few employees were back by year-end. A PW survey conducted in late November assessing the impact of Covid-19 on work policies found that 375 (93%) of the 404 publishing employees that responded said they have worked remotely at some point this year—and of those who have, 360 (96%) said they continue to do so.
Conferences move online
The pandemic also forced most domestic and international book fairs and conferences to either cancel or hold online events rather than the traditional in-person meetings. The London Book Fair was the first major book fair to be canceled, in March. After scores of exhibitors began canceling their plans to attend, organizers called off the event one week before it was scheduled to take place.
Other events followed, including the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair, which had originally moved its event from March to May, then shifted to holding a virtual event exclusively. Among the many international conferences that shifted to a virtual format were those in Beijing; Gothenburg, Sweden; Guadalajara, Mexico; Madrid; and Moscow. The Frankfurt Book Fair, which canceled all in-person events, drew more than 1.5 million viewers for its online events. Of the major global book fairs, only the Sharjah International Book Fair in November managed to host an in-person professional fair, albeit a very small one.
Reed Exhibitions, organizers of BookExpo and BookCon, held some online panels in late May after a plan to conduct a delayed live event in New York City’s Javits Center became untenable, as the city had become an epicenter of the virus’s outbreak in the U.S. in late spring. In late November, Reed announced it was “retiring” the two shows for 2021. Reed said it hoped the shows could return in a reimagined format at some point. The announcement did not surprise many industry members, since Reed had been trying for a number of years, with limited success, to develop an event that would meet the varied needs of the book world.
Most book business insiders contacted by PW expressed little interest in returning to the same version of BookExpo, but nearly all hoped some type of annual event could be created. BookExpo originated in 1901 as the American Booksellers Association convention. The ABA added trade exhibits in the mid-1940s, and Reed bought control of the show in the early 1990s. At its height, BookExpo attracted about 30,000 attendees, but attendance had trended down for years.
Two of the biggest industry players, Ingram and Penguin Random House, expressed support for a new event. “We are certainly sad to see the retirement of BookExpo, but know that our industry will find new ways for our colleagues to come together—perhaps in ways that haven’t even yet been imagined,” said an Ingram spokesperson.
Markus Dohle, PRH worldwide CEO, said the company “looks forward to working with our industry partners to explore a newly imagined event where we all can come together to celebrate books and their essential role in our society and culture.”
PRH agrees to buy S&S
In most years, the news that the country’s largest trade publisher was acquiring the third-largest one would have overshadowed all other events. But 2020 was not an ordinary year. Following the March decision by Simon & Schuster’s parent company, ViacomCBS, to place the publisher up for sale, Penguin Random House and its parent company, Bertelsmann, emerged the winner, acquiring S&S for $2.175 billion. Among the companies PRH beat out for S&S was the country’s second-largest trade publisher, HarperCollins. Pending approval by regulatory authorities, the purchase is expected to be completed in the middle of 2021.
Several industry organizations raised concerns about the purchase, citing fears of more consolidation in the industry, with the country’s largest trade publisher buying one of its largest rivals to form a company with revenue of about $3 billion. Both the Authors Guild and the American Booksellers Association called for the Department of Justice to investigate the purchase.
For its part, PRH said it does not expect any antitrust issues to arise. Markus Dohle said the U.S. book market remains highly fragmented and that even since the Penguin–Random House merger eight years ago, new publishing companies have been formed and continue to grow. Dohle said that when the time comes to integrate S&S and PRH, S&S will retain its editorial independence, while current S&S CEO Jonathan Karp and COO Dennis Eulau will join PRH.
The trade loses two CEOs
The trade publishing industry had not seen a change among CEOs at the Big Five since Michael Pietsch took over at the Hachette Book Group for David Young in 2013. Under very different circumstances, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan Publishing got new CEOs in 2020.
In early May the industry was shocked by the news that CEO Carolyn Reidy had died of a heart attack at age 71. Reidy had worked at S&S since 1992, and had been CEO since 2008. During her tenure, she steered the company through the Great Recession, publishing’s digital disruption, and a slow-growth sales environment to keep it a commercial and critical success. Employees and colleagues alike spoke of Reidy’s love of the publishing business and her affection for her staff. Dennis Eulau pointed to Reidy’s “rare combination of business acumen and creative genius that made her a once-in-a-lifetime publishing executive.” Reidy was succeeded by Karp, who had been president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing since 2018.
In September, Macmillan Publishing stunned the industry with the announcement that its longtime CEO, John Sargent, would be leaving the company at the end of the year. In making the announcement, Macmillan’s parent company, Holtzbrinck, said Sargent’s departure was due to “disagreements regarding the direction of Macmillan.” Don Weisberg, president of Macmillan US Trade, was named to succeed Sargent as CEO of the worldwide trade group, while Susan Winslow, general manager of Macmillan Learning, was appointed to head that division as president.
Despite all the year’s turmoil, 2020 held one final surprise for trade publishing: sales are likely to be up over 2019. Unit sales of print books were up 7.8% over 2019 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan, with two weeks left to go in the year. The AAP reported that through October, sales of adult books in all formats were up 9.1% over the same period in 2019 at publishers that supply data to its StatShot program, while sales of children’s/young adult titles rose 4.2%.