Michael Sand, the senior v-p and publisher of the adult division of Abrams, discussed how the company was coping during the pandemic when he was a guest at the American Book Producers Association’s December happy hour.
Like most publishers, Abrams’s initial focus when the pandemic struck was shifting to remote work, Sand said. The company relied primarily on Microsoft Teams and implemented a new workflow, which, he noted, was especially challenging for the design and production teams, who are accustomed to reviewing work on paper, rather than primarily in a digital format. Abrams also changed over to almost exclusive use of digital galleys and catalogs.
The publisher prioritized the well-being and productivity of the staff, and Abrams continues to offer regular “ask me anything” sessions with CEO Michael Jacobs, as well as maintaining a policy of meeting-free weeks once a month and encouraging no-meeting Fridays. The company also started several diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, including establishing several anti-racist book clubs.
Abrams was founded in 1949 as an art book publisher, but, as Sand explained, it now has a dozen divisions and several Abrams-branded sub-brands, including Abrams ComicArts, Abrams Image, and Abrams Press, as well as Overlook Press, which was acquired in 2018; Cernunnos, a new imprint focused on eclectic art and pop culture; and several children’s imprints, including Amulet Books, which publishes the megaselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. The company also distributes several lines of books for museum publishing programs at the Getty, MoMA, Tate, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, among others.
In discussing Abrams’s performance during the pandemic, Sand said, “As you may have heard from other publishers, some established backlist books are selling in larger numbers now than in their initial seasons of publication, which is astonishing.” While backlist sales have risen, “platform-driven frontlist books can also find a way in this environment,” he noted, while acknowledging that promoting other frontlist titles is a challenge, “as you don’t have access to the same tools you are used to using or all the accounts functioning at full capacity.” Amazon, he said, has become an even “bigger partner” during the pandemic.
Asked about how to generate more traction for books on Amazon, Sand said that the company has been paying even more attention to book covers. “As a company, we spend a lot of time sweating the materials of our book covers: ‘Is it going to have a texture or a special finish?’ But now, the other question we ask ourselves is ‘how is it going to read as a postage stamp on a screen?’ ” This extra care also translates to additional scrutiny of book titles and descriptive copy. “There is a lot of geekery around metadata and everything that might be integral to search,” he said. Social media is also a very powerful promotional tool, Sand added—one that can be important when it comes to Amazon, which tends to order conservatively until there is a big spike in sales, often prompted by social media or a real-world event.
Discussing trends, there has been a surge of interest in nature books and wellness and self-care books, and “there is definitely a renewed interest in tarot and crystals, which is an area we have lost out on some auctions to competitors,” Sand said. Occult is a category that never really went away, he said, and now publishers are spending “real money” to acquire those books.
Looking back, Sand said, there are lessons to be learned from last year. “What 2020 has shown, among other things, is that people crave the longer form and the qualities of experience that books provide: deeper understanding, powerful and diverse voices, escapism, education, immersion, and inspiration,” he said. “Books deliver all of this—our authors deliver all of this.”