Snoop Dogg and the Hunger Games: Who Saves the Book Industry During a Pandemic


When bookstores closed across America last spring, the head of the publishing house Chronicle Books Tyrell Mahoney was preparing for a complete catastrophe: the company’s revenues were plummeting. And a few months later, it turned out that the company was saved from ruin by none other than rapper Snopp Dogg with his cookbook. “From Crook to Cook”published two years ago. In 2020, book sales doubled to 205,000 copies. Not “novelties,” but such books suddenly took on the role of profit driver and eventually gave the book industry a chance to survive.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable hurdles between readers and bookstores in the past year (including lockdowns, canceled meetings and events, postponement of publication dates, etc.), people continued to buy books. Going to the cinema, sports, theater – everything disappeared, and reading suddenly turned out to be the perfect entertainment for a person in isolation.
But not the entire industry was lucky. The pandemic changed the very mechanism of searching for books: readers began to search and select literature differently. The winners were books by popular and already well-known authors, while the new names, on the contrary, had a very difficult time. According to Mahoney, out of more than two hundred new editions released in 2020, many never found their readers – and probably never will. For the most part, these are books by beginners or not widely known authors.

The question now is, how fundamental were these changes and will they stay with us forever? The buying process is fundamentally different: since readers now purchase books primarily online, the share of sales from Amazon and retailers such as Target and Walmart has grown. Of course, the migration of consumers to online has gone before, but how it accelerated during the pandemic could have a profound impact on the reading culture. Unlike random discoveries that a buyer makes while among the bookshelves of an offline store, on the Internet people search for literature purposefully: by author, by topic, limiting the number of choices. Often they see what the search engine or algorithm suggests, or they are guided by the positions that the store itself is promoting.
Hence the situation in which sellers focus on famous authors and buyers focus on popular publications. The best-selling fiction book on Amazon last year was the novel by Delia Owens “Where the crayfish sing”, released back in 2018. Also in the top were works Susan Collins (author of The Hunger Games) and Jeff Kinney (“The Diary of a Weak Man”). Overall, according to NPD BookScan, nine out of ten bestsellers are books by authors already familiar to readers. And, on the other hand, about 98% of books published in 2020 sold less than 5,000 copies.

“In e-commerce, we sell very predictable products. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but in the end it was the bookstores that were the place where new talent opened up. ”- James Dount, Barnes & Nobles.

As it turns out, offline shopping is a critical part of the literary ecosystem, which suffered greatly during the lockdown. According to the US Census Bureau, their sales fell 30%, and, as the head of the US Book Trade Association Allison Hill admits, “most stores did not make money last year.” Therefore, publishers are now worried about the long-term prospects of bookstores. For example, as a support measure, Penguin Random House will begin giving independent bookstores an additional one month grace period.

In general, during the “pandemic” year, the bookselling market showed unprecedented growth over the past 10 years: the revenues of US publishers grew by 10% to $ 8.6 billion.

  • “Non-fiction” was in great demand: books on politics, race and racism, literature on household and food preparation. Children’s non-fiction has grown by 23%.
  • The platform experienced an explosion in popularity Audible – Amazon-owned audiobook distribution service: Listens increased by 500 million hours (20% increase).
  • The number of books that users of the service Goodreads marked as “completed” (read) between April and December 2020 increased by 40% over the same period a year earlier.
  • In the first quarter of 2021, print sales peaked since 2004.

Many in the industry are wondering whether the pandemic can become a factor in constant rapid growth, as happened with the phenomenon of the Harry Potter books, which attracted a multimillion readership. And someone, on the contrary, expects a quick and inevitable decline as people tired of lockdown return to concerts, beaches, sports grounds and theaters …

The past year has been a year for the industry to reassess and rethink how it works with talent and readers. One of the new formats for working with the audience was the transition to online meetings with authors: traditional events, speeches and autograph sessions were moved from conference centers to Zoom. And that, in turn, has wiped out a significant chunk of the bookstore’s income. According to the co-owner of the Arizona bookstore chain Gail Shanks, if after offline meetings between the author and readers, book sales reached 1000 copies, then the online format brings 150 sales as a maximum – and usually about a dozen in general. The alternative was deals with publishers, who paid the bookstore to organize zoom sessions with authors, but in this case it was about $ 200-500, which is similar to the income from 20-50 books. And the online meetings themselves, as the pandemic continued, became less and less effective – affected by “Zoom fatigue.” Of course, a certain surge in sales during the lockdown period was provided by online orders, but in independent bookstores it was not revolutionary high, and the offline stores themselves were not ready to restructure their business for online commerce. In the end, their revenues still dropped significantly.

The shift in online book sales has led to a drop in new book sales. If 10 years ago they accounted for half of the volume of publications sold, then in 2020 they accounted for only a third.
Among the 50 best-selling books on Amazon, only 17 were published in 2020, of which ten are memoirs and journalism: biographies of Obama, Trump, Churchill, Matthew McConaughey, cookbooks, etc. Among the “old” books, whose popularity among readers the novelties could not get around, – already mentioned novel by Delia Owens (2018), thriller “The Silent Patient” (2019) by Alex Michaelidis, a screen adaptation of the novel by Celeste Eng “And fires are smoldering everywhere” (2017), etc., as well as biographies of celebrities, educational and children’s literature, published in the 1990-2010s.
HarperCollins President Brian Murray believes that in the pandemic, people have decided to read what they have long wanted, but put off. Because of this, a number of expected novelties, which promised to become breakthrough bestsellers, could not find a mass reader, as happened with novels. Enter the aardvark Jessica Anthony, Under the rainbow Celia Laski and August Callana Wink. Another example is the novel by Hilary Leichter Temporary, nominated for numerous literary awards and critically acclaimed as one of the best books of the year. The cancellation of press tours and readers’ conferences led to the fact that in the end Temporary sold a modest circulation of several thousand. However, the author is also pleased with this: “In fact, I am very lucky that people found this book at all.”

Even now, the situation with book sales is far from stable. According to a recent researchDespite the widespread adoption of digital editions, “paper” books are still ahead of e-books in terms of sales. Thus, in the United States in 2020, printed books were purchased by 45% of the population, while electronic books were purchased by only 23%. The gap is even higher in European countries. For example, in Germany, 58% of respondents bought paper books, and electronic – only 10.4%.

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