Yesterday's webinar "Publishing Now ’21: Looking Forward," hosted by Westchester Publishing Services and Publishers Weekly, attracted more than 500 viewers, as industry insiders discussed the state of the publishing industry, the ways in which it has been changed by the pandemic, and the outlook going forward. The panelists were Tom Chalmers, managing director of Legend Times Group; Cathy Felgar, publishing operations director at Princeton University Press; Dominique Raccah, CEO and publisher of Sourcebooks; and Lorraine Shanley, president of Market Partners International. The webinar was introduced and moderated by Jim Milliot, editorial director of PW.

After noting that unit print sales were surprisingly robust in 2020, up about 8% and that unit sales are up 26% so far this year, according to NPD BookScan, Milliot questioned whether this upward trend would continue, particularly as a sense of normalcy returns and books begin competing again other forms of leisure, such as restaurants and shopping. He added that other challenges persist, including limited printing capacity in the U.S., which has exacerbated supply chain issues, and a glut of titles that were delayed from 2020 -- more than 500 have been tracked by PW -- and pushed into 2021, making frontlist discoverability even more problematic.

All the publishers said that backlist sales were a major driver of revenue last year. For Legend's Chalmers, whose house publishes both trade and academic titles, it was an unprecedented shift: "In 2020 our sales were 65% backlist, 35% frontlist — which is a flip from previous years. Princeton's Felgar said frontlist was "somewhat soft" while backlist has "done quite well" and ebook sales were "staying up."

At Sourcebooks's Raccah said that strong backlist sales have continued into 2021 with backlist sales up 74% year-to-date over 2020. She attributed slower frontlist sales to "discoverability issues with respect to online," but added, "I think that American readers were taking less risks with new authors and new books."

Raccah pointed to another strong driver of recent sales--the move to more online sales. She said that Sourcebooks saw big gains at all of its retail partners that have an online component, stressing those gains were not limited to Amazon and gave a shout out to the work done last year by

Marketing needs reimagining

Marketing played a factor in keeping sales up, but while publishers and stores turned to virtual events last year when stores closed that strategy has proven less-and-less effective over time. "Zoom book tours peaked at the beginning of the pandemic, but they have petered out now," Shanley said. Raccah concurred: "Virtual events don't translate to sales that well. What we are doing now isn't working as well as we had hoped."

After acknowledging that bookstores are still the primary means for customers to discover frontlist titles, Raccah advocated that publishers should be more experimental and entrepreneurial in their approach to marketing and teased a new marketing strategy the publishing house was employing with the first books to come from E.L. James's new Bloom Books imprint. For her part Felgar said Princeton was focusing on bolstering sales by doing keyword enrichment of the backlist.

The reduction in sales through traditional bookstores have been supplanted somewhat by direct-to-consumer sales. A variety of old and new business models are also thriving. MPI's Shanley pointed out that one online channel that was doing extremely well that was not Amazon or, was online book clubs, noting that the reimagined Book of the Month Club was especially successful, having shifted focus to catering to millennial women, and Epic, the digital reading platform for children's books, had recently hit the milestone of attracting 50 million users.

Supply chain challenges

The biggest challenge to publishing's continued growth may be the most prosaic: the tightening of the supply chain. "There is no question that on the manufacturing side, we are dealing with longer print cycles," Sourcebook's Raccah said. "When it comes to printers, we are paying for some short sightedness that we are had in the past and I am really hoping that we are going to see people invest and grow printing businesses. This is a constraint we are all operating under. You cannot have the growth we are projecting as an industry and cut back on the supply side."

Production issues are impacting the international market as well. Princeton's Felgar said that her company, which has a U.K. office that produces 20% of the publisher's revenue, was having trouble getting books shipped in from Europe -- a direct consequence of Brexit. Legend's Tom Chalmers noted the same and said he felt changes wrought by Brexit were unlikely to work themselves out for at least two years.

One consequence of the printing crunch has been an increase in demand for print-on-demand service providers. "But even some of those suppliers were at capacity last year," Felgar said. The result of this tightening is that Princeton is hunting for new printers with capacity. "We are looking in Canada and Mexico, anywhere we can find them," Felgar added.

Looking ahead, while the prior sales trends of 2020 are not likely to sustain themselves, that doesn't necessarily mean a return to no growth in 2021. "A recent report form McKinsey [the consulting firm] said online reading and purchasing will continue," Shanley said. "The question is about the viability of some categories: Cookbooks and fitness books have both peaked, and we've likely seen the end of the boom in educational workbooks. Generally though -- I'm going to say it on the record, here -- the market in 2021 will be strong."