The World of Books Braces for a Newly Ominous Future

By NY Times March 16, 2020 The World of Books Braces for a Newly Ominous Future

In these isolated times, many people are inside reading, but the book business, like others, is bracing for catastrophe. Major literary festivals and fairs around the world have been canceled. Public libraries have closed. Author tours, signings and bookstore appearances have been scrapped.

As the severity of the coronavirus outbreak continues to intensify, authors, publishers and booksellers are struggling to confront and limit the financial fallout. Many fear the worst is yet to come, including more store closures and potential disruptions to warehouse and distribution centers, as well as possible paper shortages and a decline in printing capacity.

“There’s no question we’re going to see a drop in sales,” said Dennis Johnson, co-publisher of the Brooklyn-based independent press Melville House, who has directed staff to work from home. “It’s unprecedented. Nobody knows what to do except hoard Purell.”

The Sydney Writers’ Festival, which typically draws an audience of 80,000 and was scheduled to begin on April 27, was called off this week, following cancellations of major book fairs in England, France, Germany and Italy. In the United States, The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Tucson Festival of Books, the Virginia Festival of the Book and The Believer Festival in Las Vegas were among the many shuttered events, which draw tens of thousands of readers and can be a critical sales venue for authors and publishers.

On Monday, PEN America announced that it was calling off its World Voices Festival, which was set to take place in early May in New York, with planned appearances by Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Jenny Slate, Elif Shafak and others.

BookExpo, a pivotal annual trade show for publishers, booksellers and librarians, is currently still scheduled to take place at the end of May at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York, according to the event’s organizer, Reed Exhibitions. “We remain optimistic that we can take the appropriate measures to see ourselves on the other side of this by the end of May and carry on as planned,” BookExpo’s director said in a statement on its website. “That being said, we will continue to follow guidelines and precautions suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The potential long-term effects for book retailers are sobering. Many in the industry are worried that independent bookstores will be devastated as local and state officials mandate social distancing and order some businesses to temporarily close.

Mitchell Kaplan, the founder of Books & Books, an independent chain of stores in South Florida.

Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Mitchell Kaplan, the founder of Books & Books, an independent chain in South Florida, said sales have fallen at the company’s stores and cafes, and author appearances have been canceled.

“The irony of all this is that what makes bookstores so potent, our ability to be community gathering places, has become our biggest liability,” he said.

The public health crisis and the resulting economic fallout have hit at a moment of relative calm and strength for the industry, after a period in which independent stores across the country had rebounded, print sales had stabilized and digital audiobook sales had soared. In 2019, total sales across all categories rose 1.8 percent from 2018, reaching $14.8 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Now, those gains are likely to be erased as booksellers confront a bleak and uncertain economic future.

A growing number of independent booksellers have responded to the public health crisis by closing their stores and sending employees home. On Monday, the Strand bookstore announced that it was closing its flagship store in Manhattan and its kiosks elsewhere around the city. Emily Powell, the owner and chief executive of Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., announced that Powell’s was closing all five of its locations through at least March 31.

Some independent booksellers, including Powell’s, have already begun cutting staff. On Monday, Powell’s announced to employees that it will begin involuntary layoffs after determining the minimum number of employees it needs to keep the online store functioning. A representative of the local union that represents 400 Powell’s workers said that about 85 percent of them had already been affected by temporary layoffs, and that the company has signaled that permanent layoffs are likely to follow.

McNally Jackson, an independent chain in New York, let a substantial number of its employees go after deciding to shutter its stores for the time being. On Twitter, the company said it had temporarily laid off many of its staffers while “facing down a massive, unprecedented loss in revenue,” and added that “we intend to hire back our employees as soon as we can.” A note on the company’s website said that it is still accepting phone and online orders while the stores are closed, and offering delivery.

Other bookstores, which often serve as community hubs as well as businesses, are trying to offset falling foot traffic by offering customers free delivery or curbside pickup. The novelist Ann Patchett, a co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., said her store is offering curbside book delivery and free shipping for orders over $50, and is putting together video book recommendations for its website. “It does seem like a great time to get some reading done,” Ms. Patchett said.

The Booksmith in San Francisco is also offering free local shipping, and has seen a rise in online sales. “Fulfilling those orders has turned into a constant, full-time, all-day thing for now,” said Camden Avery, the store’s manager.

The American Booksellers Association said it has been lobbying publishers to support independent stores by offering discounts, free shipping to customers and a removal of the cap on returns of unsold titles, among other measures. Other groups have been raising money to donate to hard-hit independent stores. The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which gives financial support to independent stores, released a statement offering potential assistance to stores that have been impacted by the epidemic and are unable to pay their rent or utilities bills as a result of lost sales.

Still, many in the industry worry that financial losses stemming from the outbreak will cripple a significant number of stores and cause them to close permanently. Others fear that the lockdowns and government guidelines mandating social distancing will give an even greater advantage to Amazon as more homebound customers turn to internet shopping.

Another looming concern for publishers and authors is the impact of the rapidly unfolding crisis on Barnes & Noble, the largest bookstore chain in the United States, which is already ailing. James Daunt, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble, said the company is anticipating a blow to business, even as it has seen a lift in online sales.

“We’ll suffer disruption along with everybody else. It’s going to be hugely challenging for retailers, perhaps slightly less for us than most,” Mr. Daunt said, noting that bookstores aren’t usually as crowded as restaurants and bars. “Most of our events will be canceled, if not all. This is a really tough time for every retailer, and unquestionably we will suffer.”

Outside the Strand bookstore in New York City on Monday.
Credit…Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

Countless authors are reeling from lost income resulting from canceled book tours, speaking engagement fees, honorariums and workshops.

In an effort to replace book tours and foster a sense of community, some are turning to virtual events through platforms like Zoom, Crowdcast and Instagram Live. Erik Larson canceled the remainder of a planned 33-city tour for his best-selling book about the London Blitz, “The Splendid and the Vile”; his publisher is now looking at ways to livestream a conversation with him, and plans to post a series of short videos online in which he discusses his research and writing process. Andrew Altschul, promoting his new novel, “The Gringa,” held an online discussion on Instagram Live last Friday with Twenty Stories, a bookstore in Providence, R.I.

The art critic Jerry Saltz was scheduled to launch his new book, “How to Be An Artist,” at the Strand in New York on Tuesday, but will instead appear in a livestream conversation broadcast on the store’s Instagram account, which has 225,000 followers.

Some stores see virtual events as the best alternative for the foreseeable future, and perhaps the only way to stay connected with readers and their communities as more physical spaces are forced to close.

Politics and Prose, in Washington, is aiming to turn all of its scheduled author appearances into virtual events, with writers hosting a conversation about their books remotely by web video through the platform Crowdcast. “Authors are self-isolating along with the rest of us,” said Liz Hottel, the director of events and marketing at Politics and Prose. “I’m sure they are as starved for meaningful dialogue as readers are.”

Alexandra Alter writes about publishing and the literary world. Before joining The Times in 2014, she covered books and culture for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she reported on religion, and the occasional hurricane, for The Miami Herald.

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The World of Books Braces for a Newly Ominous Future

The World of Books Braces for a Newly Ominous Future