After working through two years of Covid-19, a group of independent publishers interviewed by PW were pleasantly surprised to find that they are in better shape in 2022 than they were before the pandemic. That doesn’t mean uncertainties about the supply chain and the impact of inflation aren’t cause for concern, but publishers feel confident that titles set for release this year will find readers.
Dan Simon, publisher of Seven Stories, said sales were basically flat in 2021 compared to 2020, but he considered that a win, since 2020 was “a banner year.” In 2020, a number of Seven Stories social justice titles for both adults and children sold exceptionally well, but the sales mix in 2021 was very different. “Works of pure imagination worked really well, as people came out of their shells more and became curious again,” he explained. He pointed to such 2021 successes as Olga Tokarczuk’s adult picture book The Lost Soul; Moon and Mars, the second novel by Kia Corthron; and Together, a board book for kids by poet Mona Dlamini, illustrated by Innosanto Nagara.
Simon believes Seven Stories, like many publishers, benefitted from an overall increase in the market for books, fueled in part by indie booksellers expanding their online capabilities. He also credited his distributor, Penguin Random House, and Ingram with navigating the supply chain issues. An issue he sees confronting publishers this year stems from the growth of online sales, since readers find it difficult to discover new books and new authors at e-tailers. To get more exposure, Simon hopes to return to in-person book tours and author events soon, but he noted that tours that had been scheduled for March have been canceled. As for attending industry conferences, Simon said Seven Stories has booked a table at the London Book Fair and is making appointments, but he still isn’t sure whether the company will actually go.
One thing Simon is sure of is the strength of his list (“I’m full of high hopes for 2022,” he said). First up is what he believes is the first Uighur memoir by a survivor of internment, How I Survived a Chinese “Reeducation” Camp by Gulbahar Haitiwaji. In late March, Seven Stories will publish You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, a collection of works by Egyptian political activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who has spent a long time in prison. In the fall, Seven Stories will publish Proof of Stake by Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, who Simon said “has the strength in his ideas and writings to save blockchain from itself.”
Europa Editions editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds also reported flat sales last year after a good 2020. Adult literary and YA fiction worked well for Europa in 2021, with paperback editions of Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin, The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, and The Promise, by Booker winner Damon Galgut, selling well.
Sales to independent bookstores “were up significantly over 2020, but also up slightly over 2019, which is a great sign,” Reynolds explained. Sales at the national bricks-and-mortar chains also rose last year, with “a small selection of titles” doing well. Online sales were down.
Reynolds thinks the retail space could be “a little sluggish in 2022”; to counter that, Europa “is returning to 2020-style investment in promotional activities” to highlight its authors and titles for consumers. “We’re getting ready to announce the launch of a very busy year of events in partnership with stores, organizations, and festivals,” he said. “These events will be both online and in person. It is time for us and our authors to get back to the stores, where their books are made.”
Among the titles Reynolds believes will perform well this year are Perrin’s new novel Three, due out in June, and All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami, whose two previous titles, Breasts and Eggs and Heaven, have done well for Europa. Out in March is a new Ferrante essay collection, In the Margins.
Similar to Simon and Reynolds, Square One publisher Rudy Shur said that, after a year-over-year rise in 2020 (of about 15%), sales in 2021 were “pretty much even with 2020.” A book that Square One had been working on for eight years was the big driver in 2020: The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History came out in February of that year, and, Shur said, “we had no idea what the orders would be like or how we would be able to get these books delivered to buyers. As it turned out, we got the sales and found a partner to help ship the books out to thousands of customers.”
Knights continued to sell in 2021, and Shur said that, over the course of the past two years, sales of Square One’s health books grew, while sales of its more niche titles slowed. Its How to Teach Your Baby series also sold well, particularly in 2020.
Square One’s titles have always sold well in nontrade channels, and that was the case again in 2020 and 2021. Sales to bookstores and libraries were down, but online gains offset those drops, Shur said. Square One will be attending some in-person events this year, beginning with the Natural Product Expo West conference in March in Anaheim, Calif., and Shur also plans to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Shur expects health books to continue to do well this year, pointing to titles such as Black Health Matters, the second edition of What You Must Know about Women’s Hormones, and Healing with CBD.
Steerforth publisher Chip Fleischer said that 2021 sales for Steerforth and the three other publishers that are marketed together and sold through Penguin Random House Publisher Services (Pushkin Press, Archipelago Books, and Campfire Graphic Novels) rose 28% over 2020. The top six sellers last year reflect the range of genres covered by the group: history (A True History of the United States, from Steerforth’s Truth to Power imprint), mystery (The Decagon House Murders, from Pushkin Vertigo), true crime (Don’t Call It a Cult, from Steerforth), literary anthology and film tie-ins (An Editor’s Burial, from Pushkin), weird fiction and horror (Carmilla, from Pushkin); and literary nonfiction and criticism (In the Land of the Cyclops, from Archipelago).
Fleischer said that while sales in 2020 saw a big shift to online outlets, bricks-and-mortar accounts—indies, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million—had a strong comeback last year, helped by enhanced online ordering components. He projected that sales this year will increase by about 18%, but acknowledged that there are many uncertainties.
Among the uncertainties Fleischer sees ahead are difficulties getting timely deliveries of initial printings and reprints, though he added that there are signs that things are starting to improve. He said he and his group “will go to as many in-person conferences as organizers are willing to hold.” He plans to attend Children’s Institute in Phoenix in late June, and he’s hoping the fall regionals will make an in-person return. “We miss the direct interaction with people,” he noted.
Books that Fleischer sees having lots of upside this year include Against The Ice (Steerforth), which has a Netflix adaptation coming March 2; How Free Speech Saved Democracy (Truth to Power), by NCAC executive director Chris Finan; Death on Gokumon Island (Pushkin Vertigo), the fourth title in a popular series by Seishi Yokomizo; and The Wolf Age (Pushkin), about the turbulent second Viking Age that straddled the end of the first millennium.
Among backlist books Fleischer expects to do well this year are titles from Archipelago’s children’s picture book imprint Elsewhere Editions.
Indies in transition
This past year was an eventful one for Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, which transitioned to new leadership. Anitra Budd was named publisher in August, eight months after Chris Fischbach’s departure. Despite this disruption, sales in the second half of 2021 were up 25% over 2020.
Publicist Daley Farr ascribed the spike in sales to a strong showing for the press’s fiction offerings, including short stories by Brian Evenson, one of Coffee House’s bestselling authors, as well as Eugene Lim’s debut novel, Search History. Fiction continues to drive sales in 2022 as well, with Monica Ojeda’s Jawbone pulling in readers, while preorders for former PW correspondent Brad Zellar’s Till the Wheels Fall Off have been healthy.
A summer and fall tour by author Moheb Soliman around the Great Lakes—“mostly outside readings with lake views,” Farr noted—was successful enough that Coffee House anticipates scheduling in-person events for more authors this spring and summer.
Graywolf Press is also going through a transition, as longtime publisher Fiona McCrae will retire in June. Publicity director Caroline Nitz said that after a number of extraordinary sales years, sales were “down slightly” in 2021. Like at many other literary presses, fiction has been a strong performer for Graywolf, with books by debut authors—such as Jakob Guanzon’s Abundance, Khadija Bajaber’s House of Rust, and Nana Nkweti’s Walking on Cowrie Shells—selling well, as did Percival Everett’s latest, The Trees.
While Graywolf intends to continue scheduling virtual author events, employees are evaluating “on a case-by-case basis” whether to attend conferences, Nitz said. Some Graywolf authors will go to Philadelphia at the end of March for the AWP conference, but the press will not staff a booth.
Nitz anticipates a good spring for Graywolf, with the release of such titles as Solmaz Sharif’s poetry collection, Customs, which received a starred review in PW. Lars Horn, the latest winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for Voice of the Fish, will be a featured author at the ABA’s Snow Days virtual retreat in March.