New England’s independent publishers are known for carving out strong niches and holding steadfast to them, come what may. The extraordinary forces of the last year—pandemic, protests, and climate change—put that model to the test, and for five publishers it appears that strategy paid off.
At the outset of the pandemic, sales took a nosedive at Interlink Publishing Group in Northampton, Mass., as traditional sales channels collapsed. “Most independent booksellers canceled their orders for our spring list, Amazon suspended ordering for a month, and international trade came to a complete halt,” said founder and publisher Michel Moushabeck. “It was a very scary time.”
Sales rebounded in fall, however, and Interlink ended the year up 8% over 2019. Moushabeck attributed the gains to a list that cultivated a dedicated audience who sought out the publisher’s brand of international cultural histories, fiction, cookbooks, and children’s books through new avenues. He helped readers find those new sales channels, including direct-to-home ordering, by writing two customer newsletters a week and ramping up social media.
Moushabeck said the embrace of Zoom for events was another plus, allowing overseas authors to promote their titles without the cost of bringing them to the U.S. He also more than doubled the size of the company’s e-book offerings, from 150 titles at the outset of the pandemic to 350 today.
Cookbooks did especially well at Interlink. “Almost all of our 2020 cookbooks won major awards, and this made a contribution to our bottom line,” Moushabeck said. One creative marketing approach he adopted was to create easy-to-buy thematic book bundles that played to the press’s focus on international titles. He devised country bundles that each include a cookbook, a translated novel, and a cultural history from a given country, as well as an optional picture book.
The new year includes more cookbooks featuring cuisine from around the world, and more picture books.
Moushabeck was able to keep his staff intact. “We did not furlough anyone or cut anyone’s salary, and that’s a massive achievement,” he noted. “Having weathered a big storm in 2020 and come out ahead, we are moving forward with greater confidence.”
Godine started the year—its 50th anniversary—under new ownership, with managing director David Allender overseeing the daily operations of the press. The transition could have been a vulnerability in an unpredictable time, but instead sales jumped 66% in 2020 over 2019, making it the publisher’s strongest year since 2004. Changes were implemented across the company, from back-end operations to retail sales and marketing. Among the most important was a new distribution agreement with Ingram’s Two Rivers division that went into effect last March. At the same time, the press took strides to enhance its digital marketing to consumers, which resulted in a 75% increase in direct sales.
Other sales channels had smaller increases but they combined to have a large effect for Godine. Amazon sales ticked up from 49% of overall revenue in 2019 to 53%. E-book sales rose to 5% of revenue, from 2% the previous year, following a push by the press to expand its number of digital titles.
One of the most important shifts at Godine came in acquisitions, where Allender credited editorial director Joshua Bodwell for selecting titles with enhanced retail appeal. Under Bodwell’s leadership, Godine’s Black Sparrow list received multiple accolades from major media outlets, including a New York Times “best of the year” recognition for Wanda Coleman’s Wicked Enhancement: Selected Poems, which was edited by Terrance Hayes. “The books were simply better and more exciting than they’ve been in years,” Allender said.
Godine did take a handful of losses on expensive illustrated titles that reviewers and consumers could not browse in print. Those knocks confirmed Allender’s belief that the rise in e-commerce buying will shift public interest a bit further away from the press’s long-standing approach of publishing titles that resist easy categorization. “This is not a good time for unclassifiable books of uncertain audiences,” he said.
Godine’s forthcoming list contains a mix of poetry, memoir, fiction, and nonfiction. Allender said Chaney Kwak’s memoir, The Passenger, is one of the new titles that is representative of the press’s new approach, as is Simon van Booy’s novel Night Came with Many Stars.
Allender thinks Godine’s success in the pandemic points to an even stronger 2021 as the U.S. begins to emerge from the crisis. “I have every reason to believe the business will grow again in 2021,” he said. “The new Godine is just getting started.”
From White River Junction, Vt., Chelsea Green Publishing was poised to move nimbly in the face of the pandemic in spring. Vermont was late to experience the effects of Covid, and the employee-owned publishing house had just underwent an overhaul of its distribution model and had launched a new website to enhance direct-to-consumer sales. All of it helped the press adapt quickly to shifting sales channels.
When Amazon deprioritized book sales in March, Chelsea Green president and publisher Margo Baldwin partnered with Amazon resellers to meet demand and forged ahead with her publishing schedule. Long-standing partnerships with environmental, food security, and culinary organizations paid off, too. The press finished 2020 with sales up 40% over the previous year. Backlist sales rose 34%, and frontlist was up 66%.
Notably, returns were only 3% for Chelsea Green in 2020, likely the result of a 145% increase in direct-to-consumer sales and sales through online retailers like Bookshop.org. Baldwin added several drop-in, subject-specific titles that did well in 2020, including Oneness vs. the 1% by Vanda and Kartikey Shiva, and Corona, False Alarm? by Karina Reiss and Sucharit Bhakdi. The publisher is also continuing its philosophy of challenging norms by producing books that question the handling of the outbreak and the science behind it.
Given Chelsea Green’s success in 2020, Baldwin has no intention of slowing down. She predicts April’s The Truth About Covid-19: Exposing the Great Reset, Lockdowns, Vaccine Passports, and the New Normal by Joseph Mercola and Ronnie Cummins will be a national bestseller and is preparing a first print run of 50,000 copies.
Boston-based Beacon Press has been a stalwart publisher of social justice classics like Martin Luther King Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait. But few could have predicted the enormous success of a slate of titles on anti-racism in 2020, led by Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. That book was already a steady seller going into the year, but sales surged following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last summer. The publisher does not disclose figures, but director of sales and marketing Sanj Kharbanda said that 2020 was the best sales year in Beacon’s history.
With new readers came new sales channels for Beacon, with its books landing at big-box retail chains like Target and Walmart. Director Helene Atwan said the increase in sales is an affirmation of the press’s approach. “The culture is finally catching up to our prophetic books,” she said. “We’re happy they’re finding their audience, and we want to continue to do more of the same, only better.”
Atwan expects continued strength for Beacon’s backlist, and its 2021 list has some potential strong sellers, led by Nice Racism, DiAngelo’s highly anticipated follow-up to White Fragility. Other titles include Collected Poems by Sonia Sanchez and Boyz N The Void by G’Ra Asim.
For Cider Mill Press, 2019 was going to be a hard year to beat, yet sales jumped 20% in 2020, according to founder John Whalen. As the pandemic took hold, he and his team conducted an analysis of the titles they were slated to release, asking tough questions about which ones would thrive in a digital-only retail setting, and which would not. Children’s books and cookbooks stayed near the top of the list, while some other books were held for later publication. “We became very focused on books that would sell well online via a digital image versus those that require an enhanced point-of-sale experience,” Whalen said.
Cider Mill also developed a handful of titles tailored to the pandemic, including a new coloring book in its Dare You adult coloring series, titled Fuck Off Coronavirus, I’m Coloring. The press had the book ready for distribution by mid-April, and Whalen said it’s now in its ninth printing.
Like his fellow New England publishers, Whalen believes that 2021 will be another good year. As the pandemic loosens its grip, he expects cocktail books and regional travel titles to be particularly strong, but he believes gains will likely extend to the Cider Mill’s entire frontlist. “Overall,” he added, “we remain bullish for all book sales in the year ahead.”