Book sales surprised many in publishing in 2020 by increasing over 2019, despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic which threw production, distribution, and marketing schedules off-kilter as the global supply chain turned to glue and Amazon prioritized hand sanitizer over page-turners. The trade segment of the industry had the strongest sales gain among the industry segments, while sales in the religious category were estimated to be up about 4%, according to preliminary estimates from the Association of American Publishers. PW asked eight top executives from a range of Christian houses and Buddhist specialist Shambhala to tell us how they have fared since March 2020. Their answers, in short: Pretty well.

Sales are up from “slightly” to “significantly” compared to the relatively peaceful days of 2019. The disrupted supply chain remains an issue, but the shift to remote work, virtual events, and online marketing — all while fretting over the health of employees — fast-forwarded business changes that could pay off for years to come. Most publishers forecast a “robust” future, so long as they stay flexible and nimble on all fronts.

Timothy Blevins, president and CEO of 1517 Media, said 2020 sales were up 29% over 2019 for Broadleaf, 39% for Beaming Books, and 9% for Fortress. In 2021, "sell-in numbers to bricks-and-mortar have been strong for the fall, and we are seeing increasing sell-through for self-help, spirituality, and Christian titles, Blevins said. ” He even found a silver lining in the cloud of crises. “With a commitment to a new hybrid working arrangement and to help remote employees feel truly connected to our community, we are attracting more diverse candidates from across the country,” he told PW. And he found another bright spot: “The myriad of digital conference offerings from organizations like Publishers Weekly, ALA, and AAR-SBL meant a wider swath of our employees could engage in learning opportunities through booth browsing and panel and presentation attendance.”

Several publishers cited booming Bible sales during the pandemic. At HarperCollins Christian Publishing, umbrella for Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, and online sites FaithGateway and Bible Gateway, president and CEO Mark Schoenwald saw "increased interest in book and Bible reading across a broad group of genres and Bible categories. We saw increased activity in our online Bible studies through FaithGateway and Bible Gateway, which allowed us to connect with readers directly at a time when personal engagement in other points of life were minimized.”

As difficult as these months have been, Scott Mathews, CEO for both Tyndale House Publishers and the charitable Tyndale House Foundation, stressed the faith that undergirds religion publishing. He noted, “What is happening in our country has been a good wake-up call; this is what the church is supposed to be doing. We welcome the opportunity to speak into the issues of the day through the timeless lens of Scripture.”

Along with Mathews, Schoenwald, and Blevins, the executives who emailed responses to PW included: Dwight Baker, president of Baker Publishing Group; Tina Constable, executive v-p and publisher for Penguin Random House's WaterBrook, Multnomah, Convergent, and Image imprints; Jeff Crosby, the former IVP publisher (who moved August 1 to become the ECPA's president and CEO) and other IVP executives; Anita Eerdmans, president and publisher of Eerdmans; and Nikko Odiseos, president of Shambhala.

Sales Turn Up, Driven by Online

Shambhala, like 1517 Media, had soaring numbers. Odiseos called 2020, “the best year in our history,” with sales up 32% over 2019. This included a 60% bump in e-books sales “partly due to a focused backlist initiative” that may soften in the latter months of 2021, he said. Eerdmans said sales at her company were fell 5% in 2020 compared to 2019, but rose 11% over 2020 for the first seven months of 2021, boosted by growth in e-book and audio sales.

Not every company gave specific numbers, but all pointed upward, citing online sales, reopened brick-and-mortar outlets, and the always-welcome revenue from some gangbuster titles.

Schoenwald characterized HCCP growth as “solid” (although not as high as the “historic” fourth-quarter growth reported by News Corp, the parent of HarperCollins). With reopened bookstores and thriving online sales, he said, HCCP is expanding its partnerships with retailers “to create dynamic cross-platform opportunities that best serve the buyer wherever they choose to shop.”

Constable said, “Despite the very bracing headwinds, we had an incredibly strong 2020, and 2021 is shaping up to be just as robust.” Sales across every channel were pumped up by a frontlist with two of the bestselling nonfiction religion titles last year — Jennie Allen’s Get Out of Your Head (436,000 copies according to NDP BookScan) and Michael Todd’s Relationship Goals (more than 319,000 print copies). “Target, in particular, has become a key player for our entire program, including our recently launched Ink & Willow gift product line,” Constable said.

Christian Indies came through for several publishers. Justin Paul Lawrence, IVP senior director of sales and marketing, said reports from its rep group indicate that some indie stores had their best Christmas ever in 2020 "as folks rediscovered the power of a local store when global supply chains were disrupted. We also saw significant growth in both audio and e-book sales. Our IVP Academic line had the best year ever, driven partly by Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black (nearly 30,000 print copies), but also by durable text and reference demand during lockdown.”

Challenge Upon Challenge

BPG rode out the disruptions of Covid times, with good sales through indies, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but their most valuable retailer was Baker Book House in Grand Rapids where sales increased 50% over a two-year period, Baker said. The bookstore also lifted sales for other publishers, not only BPG, he said. "When the major online retailers were frozen by shutdowns, Christian publishers contacted Baker Book House as the solitary partner that was able to deliver their new releases to readers. This was a rare and fleeting window of opportunity, but a glimpse of our long-range possibilities.”

Baker also disclosed that BPG was hit with a ransomware attack this March that shut the company down for about two weeks. He described it as an exhausting—and enlightening—experience. “Our leadership crisis reflex snapped back into action. It was amazing to witness, once I crawled back into my office chair. Our executives had no such reflex before the pandemic, so apparently, the agility of our leadership team has been refined by serial epic disruptions,” he said. Baker also offered a warning, telling PW that if ransomware pirates could find his “mid-size company in a mid-west cornfield,” his colleagues in the industry should get their guard up and strategies in place for a similar attack.

Crosby cited a list of challenges that many others echoed: “The mid- to late-spring 2020 virtual shutdown of book purchases from the industry's largest customer (Amazon) and the ripple effect that had on the effective launch of new book projects and online availability paired with the need to equip more than 80 employees to do their work from their homes or other remote sites represented our biggest challenges. The global supply chain issues were very close behind.”

Cindy Bunch, IVP associate publisher and director of editorial, pointed out how 2020 demanded rapid modernizing of the workflow. “The editorial department relied on some key paper processes and in-person team meetings for proofreading, corrections, and routing manuscripts. Social distancing during the pandemic pressed our extraordinary managing editor, Elissa Schauer, and her team to make a number of shifts. Now our editorial work is managed via digital project management and our proofreading and all corrections are entered and proofread in digital files.”

Anita Eerdmans also spoke of the sudden shift to remote work for employees who were also facing “extremely taxing circumstances.” The Amazon freeze gave her “the most sleepless nights,’ she said. Yet, it served as “a sort of kick in the pants to redouble our efforts to get as many of our books as possible, as quickly as possible, in electronic format, a decision that continues to serve us well to this day.”

Changing Places

“Hybrid” may be the workplace word of the year. All the publishers are facilitating new schedules as employees vary workdays between remote and in-office days. And publisher plans keep changing as with the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant. At Baker’s headquarters, “We’re usually 70% on-site in a given weekday," Baker said.

For some workers, the office they return to is not the same as the one they left in 2020’s lockdown days. Shambhala moved from rental space to its own new office in downtown Boulder, designed with flexible spaces and the technology needed to work on-site or remotely. And 1517 Media is moving to a newly designed -- and smaller -- space in downtown Minneapolis.

IVP's Lawrence said he expects that conference and event organizers who shifted to online-only models in 2020 will move toward a hybrid structure “as they realize that they can get even more revenue from the event by offering live or archived video. This will provide some unique marketing challenges for presses that engage with those events.”

Eerdmans mused how, “I long to get back to in-person trade shows!” even as she acknowledged that might be wishful thinking. She said, “We plan to participate in a mix of digital and in-person offerings, taking advantage of the cost savings, convenience, and wider reach of digital engagement and investing in those in-person events that have the greatest potential to positively impact our business goals and growth objectives.”

Changing Faces

The last 18 months were not only about responding to the pandemic. The social upheaval in the wake of the killings by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, prompted strong calls for racial justice nationwide. For publishers, the wake-up call to address diversity, inclusion, and equity for their workforce and their authors took on fresh urgency. All the publishers who responded to PW cited their initiatives to bring in more BIPOC staffers and to bring out more voices from marginalized communities.

“IVP launched a new initiative in October 2020: Every Voice Now (EVN). By the launch date, EVN had finalized a substantial six-figure fund to underwrite activities supporting authors of color and their books as well as strengthening IVP’s internal culture related to increasing its organizational diversity and cultural competency,” said Helen Lee, IVP associate director, strategic partnerships & initiatives. One of the leaders of the effort was IVP executive Terumi Echols, recently named president and publisher of IVP as Crosby’s successor.

Shambhala’s concerted effort to add new voices shows the percentage of authors who were BIPOC climbed from 24% in 2019 and 2020 to 44% to date in 2021. The publisher created a committee and a hiring guide for managers that lists more places to look toward for attracting talent from a more diverse set of communities and institutions. In terms of company culture, Odiseos said, "We have had multiple trainings focusing on inclusivity and also a lawyer-led workshop on diversity. Our dedicated committee has also brought internal discussions and presentations on various aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion to the whole team.”

For 1517 Media, based in Minneapolis where Floyd was murdered, Blevins said, “the events of last summer further punctuated the importance of publishing books about activism and the fight for justice, unmasking systemic racism and white supremacy and ensuring diversity in the authors we publish and in the publishing team."

Eerdmans pointed to the company’s history of publishing books on social justice issues, which began by publishing books on civil rights movement in the U.S. in the 1960s and the South African anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s. "We are very actively seeking to publish the best voices on racial justice issues today," she said. "We have had great success with a book we published last year called After Whiteness, by Willie James Jennings, and we just released If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? by Angela Parker.”

Constable said they were pursuing titles that addressed racial inequities long before 2020 and cited their bestsellers, I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown (156,900+ copies) and Be the Bridge by Latasha Morrison (66,600+ copies), which was the ECPA 2021 Christian Book of the Year. “We will continue to publish books that speak to the need for racial justice and to seek out a wide array of voices who can speak to all aspects of living out Christian faith from their own cultural or ethnic perspectives and experiences.”

Baker pointed out that the bestseller lists during the summer of 2020 provided evidence that many more readers were interested in race relations adding that "this momentum didn’t abate after one season.”

At Shambhala, where BIPOC authors, particularly Buddhists, are core to its lists, the publisher is also redesigning books to signal from cover onward that its books “are always geared to all of humanity,” as Odiseos puts it.

What's Ahead

Tyndale has several contemporary social issues titles on its 2022 list such as Derwin Gray’s How to Heal our Racial Divide (“on racial reconciliation in the church”) and Yosely Pereira’s A Sea Between Us (“the powerful true story of an immigrant’s journey”). However, Mathews points out, “the majority of proposals will always be on timeless topics: How do we live out practical spiritual principles, to all peoples, in all times, in all ways, with current culture?"

He said there has been an uptick in both “issue-driven titles” and “solution-driven titles.” Mathews described Issue-driven topics as those about grief, loneliness, and mental illness as people struggle to make sense of the pandemic, while solution-driven topics are spiritual healing, self-help, home décor, apologetics (as people are engaging more with their neighbors).

People may be looking at grief through a different lens, Constable said. “We anticipate seeing a lot of books that help people process their losses and focus on what remains most important to them moving forward," with 2022 titles such as Find Your People by Jennie Allen, Embrace Your Almost by Jordan Lee Dooley, and This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley.

Schoenwald noted how Christian publishing's broad range of topics it publishing in helped meet the need for books around self-help and mental health awareness as well as titles on prayer and encouragement. "We recently published Sarah Jakes Roberts, a dynamic voice and power-house female pastor and communicator. Her book (Women Evolve) landed on the New York Times bestseller list upon its release and has already sold over 100,000 copies," he said.

Eerdmans looked ahead, pointing out that although environmental issues have not been a hot topic for them in the past, the near-constant news of disastrous fires and killer floods could mean “climate change is going to be another topic that will be coming to the forefront in 2022 and onward.”

Jon Boyd, IVP Academic editorial director, observed that writers may be feeling driven to step up at a time when death and catastrophes are daily headlines. Boyd said, “One author sent in a proposal with the observation that a close family member had died of Covid and it made him realize his own time might be short, and he wanted to be sure he is writing and publishing the book that matters most to him. There’s a healthy urgency about this impulse to ‘seize the day,’ it seems to me.”