In our second installment on how independent publishers are faring in 2021, presses reported a generally good year through the first six months of 2021, and while they are optimistic about the rest of the year, uncertainty about how the supply chain will hold up is raising concerns.
New Press had a record year in 2020, and publisher Ellen Adler doesn’t think the publisher will reach that sales level again anytime soon. “Beginning in May and continuing well into the fall, sales in 2020 were through the roof,” she said. Like some other publishers, New Press is using 2019 as a comparison for 2021, and by that gauge sales are up 29% from the same period in 2019.
According to Adler, titles on criminal justice, social and racial justice, and progressive education sold well last year and continue to be popular in 2021. In addition, she noted, a number of “deep backlist” titles, such as The New Jim Crow and Critical Race Theory (edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw et al. and first published in 1996), that did well last year continue to have solid sales and are running ahead of annual sales before 2020. Adler was another publisher who said sales at Barnes & Noble seem to be improving, though she said sales at independent booksellers “are softer than we would like.” E-book sales, as expected, are down markedly compared to 2020.
Adler is hoping for a good finish to 2021 and noted New Press has books on topics that are drawing lots of attention, such as climate change and America’s actions toward refugees and immigrants. The Atlas of Disappearing Places is an illustrated guide to global warming’s impact around the world, and Refugee High is, she said, “a deeply reported year in the life of a Chicago high school that has one of the highest proportions of refugees of any school in the nation.” In September, New Press will release a book for which Adler has high expectations: It’s the Kaepernick Effect by David Zirin, sports editor of the Nation. And in what Adler termed “this backlist moment,” the publisher is giving more attention to New Press classics and will be reissuing Remembering Slavery (with a new foreword by historian Annette Gordon-Reed) and Remembering Jim Crow, as well as Alice Walker’s We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, with a new introduction by her daughter, Rebecca Walker.
Milkweed Editions had expected sales to fall this year after the press had its best year ever in 2020, publisher Daniel Slager acknowledged, but business has continued to improve. By the end of September, Slager noted, he expects Milkweed to reach the sales achieved in 2020 for the full year. Backlist continues to sell well, he said, especially Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Other spring releases that are doing well include Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty and The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson. And, Slager added, “we had to reprint several poetry books that we published in the first half.” The reopening of retail stores has given a big boost to Milkweed, and print sales are growing faster than digital. Among the other revenue streams that have helped lift revenue is rights sales, Slager said.
Looking at the rest of the year, Slager is high on Graceland at Last, a new collection of essays by Margaret Renkl that Slager said “is going out in really good quantities.” He noted that Renkl’s Late Migrations sold well this spring, and that Milkweed has her under contract for another book. Over the last couple of years, Slager added, the press has grown more rapidly than it had projected, and he believes 2021 will be another good year.
Belt Publishing’s sr. editor and marketing director, Martha Bayne, said it is hard to say if sales at the Cleveland publisher are up or down compared to last year. The volatility of 2020 has been replaced by a more manageable pace this year, which, Bayne said, will be more sustainable. Backlist continues to be a Belt mainstay, but the press has seen higher returns for some books that got good reviews, something Bayne attributed to higher returns from Amazon. Sales through physical retailers are “bouncing back,” she said.
Belt’s second half of 2021 got off to a good start with its first review in the New York Times, for A Pandemic in Residence by Selina Mahmood, a “high-brow, very literary memoir” by a Detroit physician, which, Bayne acknowledged, “is a hard sell, but it’s topical.” Other topical fall books for which Bayne has high hopes are (Mis) Diagnosed: How Bias Distorts Our Perception of Mental Health by Jonathan Foiles and The History of Democracy Has Yet to Be Written, a political memoir/manifesto by Thomas Geoghagen. Belt is also issuing the trade paper edition of Rust Belt Femme, which sold well last year, despite being released just before the pandemic struck in March. Bayne expects a good, calmer second half of 2021 compared to 2020, “when pub dates were dropping every couple of weeks.”
A 50% increase in sales through independent bookstores—which were driven in part by the success of Melanie Finn’s novel, The Hare—led to a 40% revenue gain in the first half of 2021 at Two Dollar Radio, said publisher Eric Obenauf. Released in January, The Hare is now in its third printing. Looking to take advantage of interest in Finn, Two Dollar will release her earlier novel, The Underneath, in paperback this fall.
Obenauf said the company is poised for a strong finish to 2021, citing the debut novel I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart as a key reason. It is only the second hardcover the press has published, and it has received “incredible early bookseller support,” Obenauf said, as well as a starred review from PW. Also out this fall is the movie tie-in edition of Amy Koppelman’s novel, A Mouthful of Air.
Agate Publishing publisher Doug Seibold said the first six months of 2021 were the exact opposite of 2020, when the publisher had a great first quarter but a “gut-churningly bad” second quarter. As a result, Seibold said, Agate finds itself about even with last year. A highlight has been a feature in the New Yorker about the novel This Life by Quntos KunQuest, which featured an in-depth interview with the author in which he discussed how he developed as a writer while being incarcerated at Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary since he was 19. PW gave the debut a starred review, and Seibold said KunQuest “is exactly the kind of writer, writing about exactly the kinds of people that the American literary world has perennially overlooked.”
Seibold said results in the second half of the year will depend a great deal on how the supply chain holds up. “The challenges in the supply chain have been our number one preoccupation for most of the year,” he said, citing such problems as paper and binding shortages, overburdened printers, and “shipping challenges, whether by boat, train, or truck.” These issues “have dramatically increased both our costs and our production timelines,” Seibold said, adding that it is time to give serious consideration to raising book prices. “Books have been underpriced, in historical terms, for a long time. An adjustment in book prices likely isn’t only essential in the near term, but probably long overdue, and perhaps might help publishers—especially us small and midsize houses—become a little more stable,” he said.
Milkweed’s Slager didn’t mention the possibility of increasing prices, but agreed that the cost of doing business is more expensive. “Costs are also going up. Every element of printing books, the labor, the paper, the covers, all of it is more expensive. It’s been going up the last year or two,” Slager observed.
Belt Publishing's Martha Bayne's job title has been corrected.