The e-book vaccine?

Despite the fact that so much entertainment content is now digitally delivered, physical books - at least up until this point - have continued to outpace the sales of e-books.

Yet as coronavirus rips through the world, booksellers, along with so many other retail outlets, have been forced to close down and lay off staff. Some of these stores are limping along on curbside service, delivering orders to consumers who wait in their cars, or have turned to their own online platforms for order fulfillment. 

In addition, as conferences have been cancelled and the shops shuttered, authors have also been forced to delay book tours, further interrupting the marketing and promotion ecosystem that helps get physical books into the hands of readers. 

This week’s news that Amazon will both suspend all non-essential warehouse shipments and slow down deliveries of books in the US and UK will likely deal another blow to sales of physical books, one which could potentially be a tipping point. 

While Amazon has gone far beyond its roots as a bookseller, it still ultimately holds at least half of the US print book market and claims the same percentage for online sales in some European markets. The UK, where the publishing industry is valued at £6 billion, recently saw another 5% drop in sales from brick and mortar stores—all while digital sales of physical books ticked upward. The publishing industry’s relationship to Amazon has been complicated to say the least, but Amazon’s power as a retailer, especially during a crisis, has surfaced again. 

That said, many of the independent booksellers who make up a large part of the remaining market had, at least up to this point, either survived the rise of the Amazon era or had been founded by entrepreneurs who understood the impact of e-commerce. 

In fact, many independent bookstores, before COVID-19, were thriving and evolving. 

For example, historic Foyle’s in London was dramatically updated; the upstart BookBar was launched in 2013 in Denver, Colorado and then rapidly grew; McNally Jackson, based in New York City, underwent a major expansion; and Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri celebrated their 50 year anniversary, a strong sign of their ability to weather turbulent times and adapt to industry changes. 

But with unprecedented travel restrictions and government mandated business closures in place in an attempt to contain the virus, the stop-gap measures that booksellers have put in place unfortunately may not be sustainable, especially as inventory is depleted. 

One of the few channels that has not been disrupted by the global pandemic is the e-book market. Publishers now have begun to pivot toward reading audiences who are sheltering in place, ramping up support for and access to e-books. Some houses have even offered a selection of free e-books, and Big 5 publisher MacMillan scrapped its prior plan to delay e-book licenses to libraries for new titles by eight weeks, and lowered prices on some titles - at least temporarily. 

E-book sales have been flat over the last several years, and this format never quite took the market by storm as had been predicted, at least in terms of traditional publishing. Many readers like physical books, and many readers continued to visit bookstores, despite the convenience of Amazon. Again, as warehouses empty, shipments are delayed and libraries and bookstores remain closed, readers may actually, finally get through their #TBR piles, and they may begin embracing e=books in a new way. 

Readers may also find themselves more tolerant to reading on a screen if they do not have a proprietary device like a Kindle or NOOK. Amazon, who by some estimates accounts for a whopping 83% of e-book sales has already seen its share ratings go up because of social distancing.

Similarly, audiobooks, sales of which have been on the rise - especially in the UK where last year audiobooks saw a 43% surge - could feel newly compelling to readers who might feel their homes have gotten a bit silent in the wake of quarantines. Given that adult audiobooks average at 8-12 hours of listening, they can be an extremely good value option. 

In the past, independent bookstores have proven themselves to be resilient. No-one yet knows if COVID-19 will mark the point that consumers transition to preferring their books digitally, or if we’ll see a spike in e-books and then a return to print. Either way, publishers are sure to be watching closely, and waiting to react.