The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Changing How People Buy Books

When Andy Hunter launched his ecommerce startup Bookshop in January, he hoped it might carve out a small, cheerful corner of a market dominated by Amazon. Hunter’s pitch was appealing. He offered an easy way to buy books online without further enriching Jeff Bezos, after all. But Bookshop’s success was not guaranteed. In fact, it looked unlikely. Hunter was running Bookshop on a shoestring, working with four staffers out of leftist magazine The Baffler’s Manhattan office, hustling to convince publishers to join its affiliate program and independent bookshops to become partners and receive a portion of the proceeds. It was an optimistic operation. Too optimistic, if anything.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Bookshop’s business boomed.

“It has been a wild ride,” Hunter says. Bookshop went from a well-intentioned startup facing an uphill battle to one of the most popular ways to buy books online in a matter of weeks. The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vox, and The New Republic are all affiliate partners now. Its headcount has doubled in size. Hunter expects to hit $6 million in sales by May, eons ahead of its loftiest projections from January. If the company’s performance holds steady, it could do $60 million in sales a year, although Hunter is assuming post-quarantine life will be different. “I’m sure that when things open back up, our sales will drop, maybe even cut in half,” he says. “But even then, we’re still one of the top 10 bookstores in the US.”

The Bookshop success story is just one example of how rapidly the bookselling business has changed amidst the stay-at-home orders brought by Covid-19. “The benchmark existential moment for the book industry was 2009,” says Peter Hildick-Smith, the president of book audience research firm Codex. That year, ebook sales were ramping up, Amazon was on the rise, and Borders was flailing as the economy faltered. “This is a lot more profound.”

The pandemic caused an abrupt, massive shift in consumer behavior. Leisurely in-person browsing is on hiatus indefinitely. Although most physical stores in the United States are closed, and the economy is in a drastic decline, book sales overall have been up in April, according to market research company the NPD Group. “The book market has historically performed well during times of economic downturn, and our first six weeks have shown us that there is unlikely to be a catastrophic cliff in demand for books,” NPD industry analyst Kristen McLean wrote in a recent internal update, noting that book sales grew almost every year during the Great Recession.

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Books about travel, foreign languages, and business are on a downward trend—it’s a terrible time to release a guidebook, for instance. But some speciality publishers have been particularly well-positioned to succeed right now. “Sales are up 15 percent over last year today,” says Margo Baldwin, founder of Vermont-based independent publisher Chelsea Green. “Direct-to-consumer web sales have skyrocketed.” With a focus on nonfiction covering sustainability, increased general interest in gardening and eco-friendly domestic activities has been a boon for the indie. “Our gardening books are doing extremely well, including one that hit a regional best-seller list out West, Gaia’s Garden. That was published over 25 years ago,” she says. “People are really turning towards how to make themselves more self-sufficient.”

The NPD Group highlighted this trend too. “We’re watching a solid increase in the cooking category,” McLean wrote. “It’s clear that everyone really is making bread.”

In addition to homemaking books, children’s educational books are in high demand, as parents have moved en masse to homeschooling. NPD found that “juvenile” book sales have been up 80 percent since the beginning of March. Barnes & Noble has seen this large increase in educational and children’s books. CEO James Daunt says that people are also gravitating toward well-regarded novels, both contemporary favorites and canonical books. “Fat ones are selling more than thin ones,” Daunt says. “Those books that everybody is supposed to have read but perhaps hasn’t.”

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