The publishing industry made it through 2020 in much better shape than most thought it would when the pandemic first emerged nearly two years ago. Though there were many challenges and some companies and segments of the industry struggled, most companies had good financial years, and overall industry sales were unexpectedly robust in 2020. With the hope that the negative effects of Covid-19 would ease in 2021, most industry members expected that the business would settle into something of a new normal last year. But that was not to be the case. The biggest story of 2021 was the ongoing impact the pandemic had on the industry.
Virtual author tours, conferences, and fairs became standard practices in 2020, but there was hope that 2021 would eventually bring a return to in-person events—for the most part, however, those ideas were thwarted. During the summer, bookstores slowly began experimenting with live author appearances, usually held outdoors or in limited numbers indoors with masked customers. But as colder weather set in and different variants sprang up, in-person tours largely ended, and there's no certainty among the industry regarding when they might return in a significant way.
Another issue independent booksellers dealt with throughout 2021 was how to best enforce mask—and later, vaccination—mandates. Enforcement efforts varied, with stores in politically blue regions tending to opt for stricter rules, while those in red areas generally favored looser enforcement. And when the fall selling season began, sales reps, both at publishers and independent groups, grappled with the issue of whether to move from remote (largely via Zoom) sales calls to in-person calls. In general, companies chose to leave that decision to the discretion of individual booksellers and reps.
However, these issues didn’t prevent sales at physical bookstores from bouncing back last year. Through October 2021, sales at bookstores were $7.12 billion, up nearly 40% over the same period in 2020, and there is a good chance that sales for 2021 will ultimately be greater than those from 2019, pre-pandemic, when they were about $10 billion. The sales gains were due in part to the opening of new stores and the adoption of online sales by independent and chain stores, something both businesses began to focus more heavily on in 2020. (The Association of American Publishers reported that, for the first time, online sales accounted for about 50% of trade sales in 2020.)
To the relief of many publishers, Barnes & Noble in particular saw a return to form. After being forced to close its stores for several weeks at the start of the pandemic in 2020, the company accelerated plans to renovate its interiors and reinvigorate its bookselling practices under the leadership of CEO James Daunt. Expanded sidelines, including games, have also performed well. Overall the chain has stabilized, with Daunt telling PW last year that he expected sales to be up 5%–6% for the year over comparable pre-pandemic sales in 2019. The company even continues to support its Nook e-book platform, having released an updated Nook Glowlight, one of the company’s proprietary e-readers.
In Canada, the dominant chain Indigo Books & Music saw even better sales results, with revenue in the second quarter, which ended in October, up 16% over the comparable period in 2020. The chain of more than 200 stores only fully reopened for business late last year, having endured some of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world. As a result, it saw a significant jump in online sales, which CEO Heather Reisman said were 85% higher in 2021 than they were pre-pandemic.
Throughout 2021, major conference organizers struggled with efforts to return to in-person events. Early in the year, the American Bookseller Association’s Winter Institute was shifted online. With no sign that BookExpo would return in some form, various new programs were implemented to help connect publishers and professional book buyers. Among them was PW's new U.S. Book Show, which took place online in May. In the fall, two regional booksellers associations held in-person events: the Pacific Northwest Independent Bookseller Association attracted 180 member booksellers, plus 150 publishers and industry representatives and nearly 50 authors, to its event in Portland, Ore., and the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association drew nearly 200 attendees to its FallCon in Denver.
Several major international fairs also faced a second year of challenging shutdowns. In the first half of the year, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair was forced to once again go virtual—though it launched Bologna BookPlus, a new track for general trade publishing—and the London Book Fair hosted its first online book fair, after canceling at the last minute in 2020. The first large-scale in-person event was the Beijing International Book Fair, which was offered in a hybrid online and in-person format in September, after a last-minute postponement in August due to concerns about the pandemic. October saw the return of the in-person Frankfurt Book Fair—albeit one that was approximately 20% of its previous size—which primarily drew attendees from Europe, as North Americans largely opted out of traveling. Both the Guadalajara International Book Fair and the Sharjah International Book Fair took place in person as well, with the latter attracting 1,692,463 people. In all, 1,632 publishers from 83 countries attended the Sharjah fair.
The shift to virtual formats for book fairs has had a direct impact on at least one key aspect of the industry: rights sales. Many rights sellers who might otherwise have relied on fairs like London and Frankfurt for key sales meetings have made a major shift to working virtually, with literary agencies opting to forego fairs in favor of online pitches and working with some international book industry promotion organizations—such as France’s Syndicat national de l’édition and Bureau International de L’Édition Français, Italy’s Associazione Italiana Editori, and South Korea’s KPIPA—to stage special multiday virtual pitch sessions for international rights buyers.
The supply chain, an aspect of publishing that is generally overlooked by most in the industry, was the focus of intense interest in 2021. Stories began appearing in early summer detailing how forces connected to the pandemic were causing severe supply chain problems in virtually all industries, especially those that depend on overseas vendors.
Publishing supply chain issues were first brought to the fore in a July 6 BISG webinar, which said truck driver shortages, widespread port congestion, and skyrocketing container costs had already begun to put pressure on the industry’s ability to deliver books in time for the holiday season. Exacerbating the situation were widespread labor shortages that made it difficult for Amazon, Ingram, and other companies that operate large warehouses to find enough workers. The book manufacturing industry was also confronting its own long-standing problem with finding skilled workers, while also dealing with paper shortages, all of which combined to result in capacity issues at printers in the second half of 2021, and experts believe the printing crunch will spill over well into 2022.
To confront the immediate problem of getting books on shelves for 2021, publishers engaged in a juggling act, focusing on timely delivery of their big frontlist titles while delaying the releases of other books. Publishers also looked to move more printing back to the U.S., while also using print-on-demand more often. Speakers at an October 6 PW/Westchester Publishing Services webinar said that the long-term solution of addressing supply chain issues was more automation.
Ingram, Bookazine, and other industry middlemen urged booksellers to order their fall books early, while virtually all media outlets advised consumers to do their holiday shopping early. Those appeals appeared to resonate with the public. According to NPD BookScan, unit sales of print books began showing solid increases over 2020 in October, with double-digit weekly sales increases occurring between late October and late November before tailing off in December. At press time, with two weeks remaining in the year, print unit sales were up about 9% over the comparable period in 2020 at outlets that report to BookScan.
Those good results made it easier for publishers to continue to delay the return of workers to the office until sometime in 2022. Most publishers, including all the major New York City companies, had set a number of return-to-work office dates in 2021, only to see new virus variants ruin those plans. Whenever workers begin to return to offices on a regular basis, it appears most will be doing so under a hybrid approach, spending some days in the office and others working remotely.
PRH, DOJ, and more
Not everything that took place in 2021 was somehow linked to the pandemic. The biggest single story in 2021 was the decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to sue to block Penguin Random House’s $2.18 billion acquisition of Simon & Schuster. The decision came a little less than a year after PRH won the bidding contest for the country’s third-largest trade publisher. The reasoning behind the government's opting to file the suit caught many by surprise: the DOJ contended that the purchase would harm top-selling authors by reducing the number of publishers able to bid on the most popular authors, thereby reducing author earnings, and ultimately hurting consumers. PRH, its attorney Dan Petrocelli, and S&S CEO Jonathan Karp noted that the government did not argue that the deal would reduce the number of books published or raise prices.
On June 5, the industry lost one of its longest-serving CEOs when Scholastic head Dick Robinson died of a heart attack at age 84. Robinson was elected president of Scholastic, which was founded by his father, in 1974, and was named CEO in 1975.
During Robinson’s tenure, Scholastic expanded into the school book fairs business, broadened its international footprint, made a series of acquisitions in several publishing segments, and significantly strengthened its trade publishing division, which has published such zeitgeist-dominating series as the Baby-Sitters Club, Captain Underpants, Dog Man, Goosebumps, Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and the Magic School Bus. Robinson was also widely respected for his commitment to literacy, and in 2017 was awarded the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community by the National Book Foundation.
Robinson’s death left a leadership void at Scholastic, and board member Peter Warwick was named president and CEO. Warwick’s appointment was somewhat overshadowed by the revelation that in his will, Robinson left his controlling stake in Scholastic to Iole Lucchese, a longtime company executive who had also been appointed company chair after Robinson’s death (and who is widely reported to have had a romantic relationship with Robinson). As 2021 came to a close, it remained unclear how questions surrounding Robinson’s will and its impact on the future of Scholastic will be resolved.
The TikTok app emerged as an important promotional vehicle for books in the year with the explosion of interest in “BookTok,” which TikTok users use to share their favorite books and authors. Various BookTok hashtags led to numerous backlist titles, mostly in the adult fiction and young adult segments, becoming 2021 bestsellers. Among the biggest BookTok-driven hits in 2021 were Colleen Hoover’s 2016 title It Ends with Us, which sold about 691,000 print copies last year, according to BookScan, after selling a total of 141,000 copies prior to 2021, as well as They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, which sold about 647,000 copies last year, after selling 140,000 copies since the paperback was published in December 2018.
As 2021 wore on, it became increasingly clear that an explosion in book banning efforts in the year had its roots in politics. The challenges are part of an organized, localized political strategy on the right designed to activate conservative voters. Librarian organizations noted that, while book bans are hardly new and there are well-established policies and procedures in place to deal with such challenges, it is something else entirely to face an organized political movement.
In an attempt to draw more attention to the issue, in December, the National Coalition Against Censorship issued a statement supported by more than 600 signatories condemning the politically motivated efforts as acts of censorship that threaten the education of children while putting the safety of librarians, teachers, school administrators, and school board officials in jeopardy.
With Maryland’s new e-book law set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, the Association of American Publishers filed a suit in December to block its implementation. The law will require that a publisher who offers to license an electronic literary product to the public “also offer to license the product to public libraries in the State on reasonable terms.” (A similar bill has been passed in New York State, but it has not yet been signed, or vetoed, by Gov. Kathy Hochul.)
The AAP suit argues that the Maryland law is preempted by the Copyright Act. “It is unambiguous that the U.S. Copyright Act governs the disposition of literary works in commerce—and for that matter, all creative works of authorship,” said AAP president Maria Pallante, in announcing the suit. “We take this encroachment very seriously as the threat that it is to a viable, independent publishing industry in the United States and to a borderless copyright economy.”