How is the book industry responding to COVID-19?

How is the book industry responding to COVID-19?
Source: Sophie Mak

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every industry, whether big and small, but the book industry may be one of the hardest hit.

From publishers to book retailers, the book industry has long faced a struggle to maintain profitability in an ever-growing entertainment landscape.

Amid so much uncertainty for the industry, few know what book publishing and retail will look like on the other side of this crisis.

The Millennial Source contacted Matt Duques, a co-owner of the Philadelphia-based People’s Books and Culture, to discuss his perspective on the situation.

Waiting for book deliveries

As coronavirus lockdown measures have spread from China to the rest of the world, nearly half of the world’s population has been under stay-at-home orders over the last three months.

While many people have sought books as a way of distracting themselves during these trying times, getting their hands on books hasn’t always been easy.

At the beginning of April, The Times reported that Amazon, the world’s largest bookseller, was turning away shipments of books in favor of products it deemed essential. Amazon denied that they were refusing shipments of books, but deliveries of some items have been delayed for various reasons, including warehouse workers being out sick.

Indie bookseller, Bookshop is a US-based online distributor that works exclusively with independent bookshops. The Amazon alternative has raised over US$1 million for local bookstores.

The book supply chain

In the first weeks of the US lockdowns, sales of both physical and digital books experienced a considerable bounce.

But even with multiple avenues available for ordering books while in lockdown, readers have faced challenges getting new books.

Many major book publishers have opted to push back the release of new titles, some of them until 2021. With festivals, expos and author readings canceled, and bookshops across the globe closed, publishers are reluctant to release potential bestsellers without the usual publicity push.

In the United Kingdom, the decision to delay book releases has short changed both bookstores and wholesalers on their stocks. Many bookshops that were attempting to get through the pandemic by shipping books have been unable to fulfill orders due to lack of supply.

Publishing houses have been having their own problems.

At the beginning of April, Publishers Weekly reported that Macmillan Publishers, one of the five largest book publishers in the US, had laid off staff members and cut salaries. Skyhorse Publishing, a New York City-based independent publisher, laid off a third of its staff at the end of March.

Powell’s Books – one of the US’s most iconic independent bookstore chains, based in Portland, Oregon – was forced to lay off hundreds of its employees in late March. However, due to an increased demand in online sales, the store brought back more than 100 workers.

People’s Books and Culture

The Millennial Source spoke with Matt Duques, co-owner of People’s Books and Culture (PBC; formerly Penn Book Center). PBC has been an independently owned bookshop in West Philadelphia for over half a century, sitting on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus and serving both UPenn and Drexel University students and faculty.

Matthew Duquès, PBC
Source: PBC’s Official Website

As recently as 2018, the bookstore was on the verge of closing. On the bookshop’s website, it explains:

“Twice in our history – once in 1998 and once again in 2018 – our store appeared destined for closure. Twice now, people in the community helped bring PBC back to life through letters, petitions, protests, and collaboration.”

After PBC’s most recent brush with closure, Duques and his wife stepped in and took over. Below is the text of an email interview conducted on April 29 (with minimal editing for clarity and conciseness).

Why did you decide to become an owner of a bookstore?

My wife and I have been talking about opening a bookstore for years. We’re both literature PhDs; we are both voracious readers and we love promoting the study and appreciation of literature. When we decided to move back up to the northeast, and I decided to get out of academia, it seemed like a great time to see if we could open a store.

Prior to the pandemic, did you have an optimistic outlook for the book industry? Has your outlook changed since the pandemic?

We were optimistic about what a bookstore brings to a community and we still are; the book industry is another matter: publishing has its manifold challenges today. Corporate consolidation has both helped indie bookstores in some ways, but in lots of ways, it has hurt book culture causing smaller presses to struggle to get out get works and bigger entities to risk it big on works that ultimately compromise the industry

Do you expect to make any major changes to the business once you reopen?

We had planned a significant renovation at PBC upon its reopening, but the process, even before the COVID-19 pandemic took root, has been riddled with challenges due to city ordinances and planning issues. Now we are not sure what our plans are. One of our goals with the renovation was to make PBC a more inviting social space so that West Philly residents and students and faculty in the area would feel more welcome exploring our store, having a book club, taking classes, etc.

In the current climate, that goal seems misguided, if not unethical. For at least the coming year, browsing and sitting with groups in small spaces will likely be unadvisable. When we reopen, as a result, we have planned little right now in the way of changes.

Do you consider your biggest competitor corporate physical bookstores (e.g. Barnes & Noble) or Amazon?

On the old store model Barnes & Nobles was the biggest competitor; currently it is Amazon. I suspect, though, that the pandemic has helped some book customers shift off or wean off Amazon and look to local stores to support with their purchases.

How do you think this crisis will affect independent publishing?

I am not sure what independent publishing is exactly anymore; most everything is funneled through big to big-ish publishing conglomerates, but I think the economic downturn will hurt smaller presses for sure, disproportionately.

But it will, likely, drive us toward the local in lots of new and unforeseen ways, generating renewed interest in small presses.

Are you still shipping books or just using a third-party company, like Bookshop, to do business right now?

For a while after the shutdown I drove around dropping off books on people’s stoops in West Philly. Since March 20th, though, the store has been closed. We get a little support from Ingram orders processed through our store website and we recently (I think as of Monday of this week) got set up with Bookshop (it took them a long, long time to get back to us).


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