Like the big trade publishers, many independent publishers had surprisingly good years in 2020. Some benefited from the explosion of interest in children’s workbooks and other educational materials as parents looked to entertain and educate their kids at home, while others had backlist titles that met the increased demand for books on gardening, cooking, home improvement, and race and social justice.
Boston’s Beacon Press had an unprecedented 2020, with a slate of bestselling titles on anti-racism, led by Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which sold about 867,000 print copies at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. Director Helene Atwan said sales were so high last year that she is modeling revenue in 2021 against 2019. While it’s still relatively early in the year—and revenue often dips in summer because of the press’s focus on nonfiction titles—she added that she expects a customary fall uptick that will likely put Beacon on pace to exceed 2019 sales.
Beacon is preparing a second publicity push for DiAngelo’s Nice Racism (which published in late spring) for September, when readers return from summer vacations. Titles like Angela Chen’s Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex are also selling well—with a 50-50 split between indie channels, including Bookshop.org, and large retailers—and Atwan sees this as a positive sign for the upcoming fourth quarter.
The press is also putting its profits from last year to work. It’s hired a senior publicist in New York City, and is also introducing a program to update and reissue backlist titles with strong potential to reach new readers, including Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, which was first published in 2002.
Chelsea Green Publishing, based in White River Junction, Vt., also had a blockbuster year in 2020, with sales up 43%, and 2021 is shaping up to be yet another of growth. President and publisher Margo Baldwin said sales are up 44% for the year to date over the same period in 2020. Whereas last year’s revenue came from the publisher’s extensive backlist in sustainable living titles, this year’s growth has been driven by a strong frontlist.
The Truth About Covid-19 has sold 250,000 copies in all formats since its release in late April, making it Chelsea Green’s fastest-selling book of all time. The controversial title by Joseph Mercola and Ronnie Cummins has drawn criticism from some who charge that it promotes falsehoods about Covid-19. Baldwin, who began publishing books about the environment and sustainability years before the topics became popular, is used to controversy, but she said the attacks on the book and its author have crossed a line. She received an email from an independent bookseller demanding that she stop publishing The Truth About Covid-19, and others have written notes accusing her of killing people by publishing the book.
“It used to be that people were able to disagree about things and say, ‘Well, that’s not what I think. But it’s your right to say it,’ ” Baldwin said. “No longer. I’m aghast.”
As is often the case, controversy has helped sales. Both the New York Times and CNN have published pieces highly critical of Mercola, with the Times saying he has spread misleading claims about Covid vaccines, but the book has hit a number of bestseller lists, including the Publishers Weekly, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal lists. Still, Baldwin said, the backlash has been a source of fear for her and the Chelsea Green employees.
Another publisher coming off of a record year is Turner Publishing, and president and publisher Todd Bottorff said 2021 sales at the Nashville-based house are running ahead of 2020’s. He added that sales are up at indie and chain bookstores, as well as through online accounts.
Bottorff cited the quality of Turner’s list as the reason for the improvement, pointing to critical praise for My Mistress’s Eyes Are Raven Black and No Hiding in Boise, which was an Indie Next pick. The company’s Keylight Books imprint, formed last April to find titles that can be adapted for movies and series, is finding some early success, with several books optioned for the screen, Bottorff added.
Issues with the supply chain are top of mind for publishers. Beacon was impacted by disruptions during the first months of the pandemic, just as sales for White Fragility were going up. And Atwan said the supply chain remains her biggest concern going into the holiday season: “The trucking situation has an impact on everybody in publishing—being able to get books from printers to warehouses and from warehouses out to accounts. It’s one of those things that we’re reeling from like everyone else.”
Bottorff is focused on the printing side, explaining that Turner is “building in extra time for our printers, but then holding them to account for the dates they commit to.”
More interviews with independent publishers will appear in the August 30 issue of PW.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that The Truth About Covid-19 hit the New York Times bestseller list. It hit the USA Today and Wall Street Journal lists.