On beginning the year with cautious optimism

Desk with stacks of books
Even during the various lockdowns and restrictions resulting from COVID-19, publishers kept producing books and readers kept reading them

You may have heard that 2020 was a year like no other. You may have heard that it was unprecedented. While none of this is especially true (the world has experienced both global pandemics and sociopolitical upheaval before, whether or not they occurred in our lifetimes), the year just past was certainly chock full of challenges and reasons to feel downtrodden.

No industry was spared the economic ravages of COVID-19, including the book business. While not as powerfully threatened as certain other fields that depend for their sustenance on people gathering together – live theatre and music, the restaurant and hospitality industries, travel and tourism – publishers and booksellers alike faced a confluence of competing difficulties, including a patchwork of lockdowns and closures as governments around the world tried to flatten the curve of the coronavirus; upheavals in the printing sector that made getting new books or – especially – reprints to market slow and uncertain; and disruption and delays in the supply chain as a result of postal and shipping services that were overwhelmed with packages once goods were no longer available in person.

This all came with a cost. According to BookNet Canada, sales of print books decreased by three million units in the first half of the year as against the same period in 2019, which represents a year-over-year shortfall of $63 million. Rupert McNally, co-owner of Ben McNally Books in Toronto, told Quill & Quire in August that the store’s sales were below 30% of what they were in the same period the previous year. Hamish Cameron, vice-president of distribution at University of Toronto Press said at the beginning of the first wave of lockdowns, in April 2020, that orders were “way down, probably about half of what they were,” and that the only independents that were ordering new stock were those able to do curbside pickup or delivery.

Indigo Books & Music, Canada’s largest bookstore chain, was squeezed by the loss of revenue in the first half of the year, resulting in massive mid-year returns to small publishers that could barely afford the losses. Dundurn, for example, saw returns totalling some $70,000 from Indigo, while Book*hug Press was expecting a hit in the neighbourhood of $16,000.

Publishers, meanwhile, shuffled pub dates around to avoid losing potential exposure for their frontlist titles, some pushing spring 2020 books into fall, some delaying titles for a year or longer.

All of this created an inimical environment for anyone trying to launch a book in 2020 or any independent publisher or bookseller trying to survive on the remnants of what were already razor-thin margins.

That was the bad news. But as Bruce Cockburn once pointed out, whether the world appears blessed or cursed depends on what you look at, but also on “the way that you see.” And despite every reason to be pessimistic about the fate of books in 2020, there are also clear and unarguable reasons for optimism, albeit of the cautious type.

In times of crisis, books serve as a refuge and a way to process the world

People continued reading in 2020, and in many cases reported reading more than previously. According to an April survey from BookNet Canada, 58% of readers reported reading more during COVID-19, while only 4% reported reading less. In the U.S., NPD BookScan reported that sales of print books in that country rose 8.2% year-over-year, for a total of 751 million units sold.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the holiday season was fairly busy for booksellers, albeit in a different way from years past. Booksellers and publishers alike suggest that backlist was strong in 2020 and that people were ordering individual titles across the board rather than driving sales of a handful of award winners or blockbuster books. This, it is suggested, is a result of readers poking around in publishers’ websites, which served as the driver of discoverability under COVID-19 restrictions. (Even if what they were discovering was sometimes years, if not decades, old.) The downside to this trend is that smaller bookstores ended up serving as warehouses or order fulfillment centres, something they were never set up to be in the first place.

There were one or two blockbusters in 2020, including Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, which sold more than 3.3 million copies in its first month of publication. Another big seller was Mary Trump’s book about her notorious uncle, Too Much and Never Enough, which sold 1.3 million copies in its first week. But if word of mouth is to be believed, the so-called long tail also operated throughout the year, with unexpected sales of single units that may, in the long run, drive further sales as readers uncover new or previously overlooked gems.

None of which is to suggest that things will not continue to be difficult. Despite sales rebounding in the second half of the year, the Association of Canadian Publishers surveyed sixty-one houses prior to the traditional holiday selling season and nearly half of those anticipated a 40% decline in sales for the year. Ten percent expected to be down as much as 60%.

And independent booksellers face further challenges during the pandemic and whenever they are allowed to reopen in areas currently under lockdown. But bear in mind: when New York City’s Strand Bookstore put out a plea for help to ensure its survival, the community rallied to keep it afloat. Lineups stretched down the block, and some customers bought close to 200 books as a way of supporting the iconic business.

If last year proved anything, it is that readers are devoted to the printed word and that booksellers, publishers, festivals, and other stakeholders are resilient and flexible in their desire and ability to continue getting books into the hands of those who want them. It solidified a sense of fellowship as people came together to develop new ways of promoting books and talking about literature. Festivals that were previously bound by the strictures of geography found brand new audiences, writers discovered new ways to connect with readers, and readers sought out different venues for sharing and discussing books.

Sure, the industry faces challenges. And water is wet. What writers, publishers, booksellers, critics, organizers, advocates, and readers have proven again and again is that they are not daunted by challenges. Our literary culture will persist, and even evolve, not in spite of the difficulties faced in the past twelve months, but in a real way because of them.

On beginning the year with cautious optimism