The pandemic has had something of a strange effect on the world of book publishing. Shut-down bookstores and closed classrooms initially depressed sales in the market, particularly of educational books. But that drop-off has reportedly been replaced and even surpassed by consumer demand for printed books to be read during the pandemic.
Overall book sales are up 5 percent year on year thus far, and the pace is picking up, The New York Times reported. Sales were up 12 percent between early June and mid-August compared to the 10 weeks prior.
That perk-up is occurring at the same time the market is seeing similar growth in gaming, streaming and other home-based sources of entertainment as consumers remain in lockdown, first by statute and then by choice. For instance, Disney’s new streaming service Disney+ signed on 50 million new members as of June — roughly four years ahead of when the company expected to reach that goal.
Similarly, Netflix said in its last earnings report that it added a record 15.8 million new members to the 182 million people worldwide who were already signed up to the service. And Newzoo recently estimated that 2.7 billion people — more than a quarter of the world’s population — will play a video game this year.
But when it comes to home-based entertainment, consumers haven’t been afraid to go old school and read books. The pick-up in print-book sales seems to have come along with the rise of a few other decidedly non-digital sources of entertainment. For instance, consumers rediscovered early in the pandemic their love of board games and puzzles, as roughly a third ran out to stock up on them.
The Problem With Booming Interest
One might naturally assume that customers hungry to consume the printed word would be great news for America's publishing houses. But according to the Times, that’s not necessarily true.
That’s because it turns out that getting books printed will be something of a challenge in a post-pandemic environment, given that LSC Communications — one of America’s two largest printing companies — declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April. LSC recently agreed to sell itself to Atlas Holdings in a take-private deal.
The other major book printer is Quad Communications, but that firm put its book-printing unit up for sale last fall, then temporarily closed it down earlier this year due to the pandemic.
“The infinite printer capacity hasn’t been there for a while,” Sue Malone-Barber senior vice president of publishing operations for Penguin Books, told the Times. “Now enter COVID and a huge surge of demand and you have an even more complex situation.”
That’s creating something of a supply crunch in the publishing world just as several high-profile titles from well-known authors are due to hit the shelves for the fall season.
The Times reported that Penguin and several other book firms have been rewriting their publication schedules, delaying some releases until early 2021 and beyond. That will force many books off of holiday shopping lists.
The crunch is hitting authors at all levels of the game — from the award-winning and well known to up-and-comers, the paper said. But the Times said the consensus view in the industry is that newer authors are more likely to face delays and to suffer negative consequences from them.
Filling The Gap
What happens when consumers can't purchase physical books because a slowdown in printing?
Many long assumed that a great digital transformation of reading widely forecast about a decade ago would lead to an increase in eBooks. But that never quite materialized, as it turns out that lots of consumers actually prefer the real deal.
Unfortunately, printing companies decided years ago to stop investing in book printing on the assumption that eBooks would surpass that, the Times said. But that never completely happened, and physical book sales have actually gained strength over the past several years. The Times reported that that’s left printers “playing catch-up.”
But then COVID-19 took a situation that was already tenuous and made it unmanageable. Will that now force consumers into digital books the way it’s forced them to digital almost everything?
Perhaps. Amazon — which long ago got its start as an online bookseller — seems to be investing in getting there. Last month, the eCommerce giant introduced an unlimited version of Audible, its audio-book service.
Per the company’s announcement, the new Audible Plus subscription service offers members a bigger selection and unlimited access to a catalog that includes more than 68,000 hours of content and 11,000 titles. Available audio books and other content span documentaries, comedy, journalism, kids’ content, podcasts, wellness, self-development, theater and more.
But physical booksellers are a scrappy group, committed to keeping the printed word alive despite supply chain bottlenecks, printing problems and Amazon’s ever growing collection of digital alternatives to reading off of paper.
Some have started declaring their independence from Amazon and vowed to stop selling their books on the site, which might be a smart move giving the printing crunch.
“The vitality of our neighbors and neighborhoods depends on the ability of local businesses to thrive. We will not participate in undermining that vitality,” Oregon bookseller Emily Powell of Powell’s City of Books wrote in announcing plans to stop working with Amazon.
However, neighborhood shops might face a bigger threat than Amazon if consumers looking for specific books can’t find them. That might force book fans to find new ways to consume the printed word.