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COVID-19 Marks a New Chapter for the Book Publishing Industry

By Monique Sherrett

The shifting pressures of COVID-19 is forcing publishers, booksellers, authors, libraries, and literary events to develop new online sales channels, to re-imagine live events, and to diversify revenue streams. The saving grace is that although the circumstances are remarkably different than any other time in recent history, the ever-evolving nature of publishing means that the next normal is not an end point but rather a new chapter, with flashbacks and lessons learned carried forward.

To answer the question, “what is the next normal?” we can look to American speculative fiction author William Gibson for a market prediction: “The future is already here — it's just not evenly distributed.”

Speculative fiction is an apt place to start when considering the logical possibilities and philosophical questions about the publishing industry’s next normal. Here are 3 things that will constitute the future, and which already exist for some.

  1. Online shopping with mail-order or curbside pickup

  2. Online author events

  3. Audiobook subscriptions

1. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, consumer interest in online shopping has accelerated and people are likely to continue shopping online even after stores reopen. In Canada and the US, bookstore and library closures have forced book publishers and retailers to adopt or adapt their ecommerce strategies to support and retain their book-buying audience. Sales are down. But 40% of Canadians report reading more books than they did pre-isolation(1). And according to NPD BookScan, year-to-date ending 5/2/20, US book sales declined only 2.2% on sales of 201M units (2). Book publishers and booksellers with ecommerce capabilities who shifted early in the pandemic to subscription box services and ecommerce with curbside pickup or delivery have seen real gains in that side of the business. Lockdowns have enhanced the need for reading materials due to necessity, but the next-normal opportunity is to retain a certain percentage of that book-buying audience, especially those who have discovered online ordering as a legitimate alternative to in-store browsing. Ecommerce is here to stay.

2. Author events and literary festivals have moved online, which will remain a good way for authors to promote their books in international markets. Demand leads to recovery, yet one of the key ways publishers generate demand for authors is with in-person author events and literary festivals. Although bookstores and event venues will open for business, many consumers will be less inclined to venture to mall and big-box stores, attend in-person author events, borrow library books, or travel to literary festivals, conferences and comic cons. The key for publishers, libraries, and booksellers will be to find the balance of what worked before and what needs to happen now. Not all content translates well to a digital event but now is the time to rethink store configurations, to tap into the momentum around remote work and Zoom conference calls, to re-imagine how author tours and literary festivals can be delivered via other channels and formats (3), and to continue or enhance investment in ecommerce, direct mail, customer experience, personalized recommendations, and real-time analytics to manage inventory and supply-chain disruptions. Relationships matter in this industry and readers are eager to reconnect with their book clubs, local bookstores, festivals, and favourite authors.

3. The audiobook market is ripe for continued growth as consumers anticipate sustained spending on home entertainment, despite decreased incomes. Home entertainment often refers to video-on-demand and streaming services, but audiobook consumption is rapidly gaining share in both the book market and the overall media market (4). Pair the interest in audiobooks with the demand for contactless, voice technology and publishers have a number of opportunities to create awareness through improved experiences of voice commands for buy, listen, and read. Book publishers and retailers with strong cash positions can learn from their peers in other streaming services and invest in predictive algorithms and recommendation engines that aid consumers’ serendipitous discovery of new content. And for all publishers, there are the existing opportunities for rights deals and partnerships with streaming services seeking fresh book-to-film or book-to-series content. Trends in consumer spending are themselves a prediction about the future, and audiobooks are on the rise.

Publishers and booksellers, in the past, have used times of crisis to adapt and transform themselves. The pandemic presents many unknowns, but the nature of publishing is about taking chances: on new authors, new trends, new markets, and new formats for reading. That same agility is on display as many players in the book industry respond to pandemic restrictions by signalling their commitment to ecommerce, online events, and continued exploration of new formats for reading. Previous recessions have taught the book industry that those who survive commit early to investment in consumer relationships and an emphasis on learning, connectivity, and problem solving. Last, as leaders know, any crisis will amplify pre-existing conditions and inequalities. As Gibson says, expect the gains to be unevenly distributed.


1) The Angus Reid Institute on Canadian leisure activities notes that 40% of Canadians say they are reading more books than they did pre-isolation:

2) Amid the global pandemic, people are reading. For book sales that means year-to-date ending 5/2/20, US book sales declined only 2.2% on sales of 201M units:

3) The future of events marketing and shared experiences need to be reimaged for current times:

4) The audiobook and podcast markets, while relatively small, are poised to grow:

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