Tin House Books and Microcosm Publishing, both based in Portland, Ore., saw gains in 2020, despite the many challenges of the pandemic. “I was so inspired by the members of our community—booksellers, librarians, authors, agents, indie presses—who all came together and did an amazing job leaning on each other,” said Craig Popelars, publisher of Tin House.
Popelars said that, though the year proved incredibly challenging, Tin House sales grew 25% over 2019, a result of increased title output, more emphasis on consumer-facing marketing, and greater retail engagement and support for its books. Tin House also benefitted from significant award recognition in 2020: Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro won the NBCC award for poetry and Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers was shortlisted for the National Book Award.
“Our poetry program found great traction last year,” Popelars said. “We launched collections by Khadijah Queen, Destiny O. Birdsong, Megan Fernandes, and Jenny Zhang, which all garnered great energy and support, and we went back to press on backlist mainstays by writers like Morgan Parker, Hanif Abdurraqib, Ariana Reines, and Tommy Pico.”
Popelars emphasized that independent bookstores were integral to Tin House’s sales success and noted that it created a series of virtual events catering to the community. “We adapted quickly to virtual author events and found great stores to partner with,” he added. “Our social media efforts and engagement really helped to bring out the crowds and engage with readers in inventive and lasting ways. Several of our 2020 authors live abroad, so it was such an advantage to ‘bring them over’ for virtual tours.”
Among the titles highlighted by Popelars as having benefitted from virtual events were Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s A Girl Is a Body of Water, Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers’ Blessing, Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands, and Eman Quotah’s Bride of the Sea.
Tin House plans to leverage its use of social media platforms and a growing consumer e-newsletter to host more virtual, consumer-facing preview events to promote books at bookstores.
Microcosm had a great 2020, with sales up 56% over 2019 and up 154% over 2018 , according to publisher Joe Biel. The gains were led by several titles, including How to Resist Amazon and Why by Danny Caine, which was released in November and has sold more than 30,000 copies to date, and Unfuck Your Brain by Faith Harper, which has sold more than 120,000 copies and remains very popular five years after publication. Harper’s follow-up, Unfuck Your Body, will be published April 29 and has the potential to be another bestseller.
Still, the lockdowns that kept many bookstores closed last year had a significant impact on Microcosm. “The trade channel, which is 99% indie, was our biggest growth channel in 2019,” Biel said. “So understandably we saw a 93% drop in 2020. However, specialty was up 34%, and gift was up 256% in 2020, through the pandemic.”
One company that had no impact on Biel’s bottom line was Amazon. “Prior to 2019, Amazon was 1%–9% of our business, so their terms just weren’t worth it for such a dismal account,” he explained. “We began ignoring Amazon as a sales channel on Jan. 1, 2019. However, they did not ignore us and quickly pivoted to sourcing our books through Baker & Taylor and Ingram.”
Biel emphasizes that direct-to-consumer marketing has been a key to Microcosm’s success, with D2C mail order up 384% for the year—which made up for lost revenue from events that had to be canceled and from closing the company’s storefront in Portland. “Honestly, D2C is no longer a dirty word in publishing,” said Biel, who added that with all the consolidation in the industry, it may be the best hope smaller presses have for gaining market share.
Biel admits that Microcosm made some missteps early in the pandemic. “We took a wait-and-see approach,” he said. “Shifting our budget to protect our staff, we implemented a 47-day moratorium on reprints and new titles, which quickly proved to be a mistake as we became part of the supply chain problems seen across the industry. We ran out of books we desperately needed as demand for older titles about police and racial justice suddenly grew. We have been weeks behind and struggling to keep up since July.”
Another upside of the challenging year was that Microcosm got to put its proprietary database, WorkingLit, through its paces. The software helps organize data, invoicing, royalties, inventory, reprints, and accounting and has been in development since 2001. “In 2020 it was really tested and we had to add tons of features,” Biel said. “Ironically, we were poised to make this available for other publishers to use last year, but our sales explosion was so intense that we were just trying to hold on.” Still, he added, the plan is to make the software available to other publishers soon, “so that they aren’t dependent on corporate partners.”