Letter from New York

Letter from New York

As 2021 nears its end, the best news, undoubtedly, has been books’ strong sales performance this second Covid year. Although print units took a slight downturn last week, numbers have been reassuring. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) statistics pegged trade sales for October at $1.04bn, the first time AAP has reported more than a billion in sales in a single month. Adult and children’s print sales for the year were up 18.3% and 19.9% respectively, and NPD/BookScan seconded the positive news, reporting unit sales up 11% year on year in November. While indies continue to face challenges and Amazon sells more than half of all trade books, as of October, American Booksellers Assocation (ABA) membership stood at around 1,900 companies in 2,500 locations. There’s still quite a way to go, but the number of Black-owned stores has more than doubled since 2014, now comprising 111. 

However, from supply chain to book banning, from Amazon to changes at the Big Five, so much remains in flux. What the relationship is between the recent sales increase and retailers and wholesalers stocking up early in light of supply chain woes will only become clear with 2022 returns. Meanwhile, there’s no quick fix to supply chain issues—or inflation. 

No quick fix, either, for the destructive polarisation plaguing the country and its manifestations in the book world. Well-organised, politically motivated efforts at banning titles involving race or LGBTQ+ experiences are surging in American schools and libraries. Books like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home are frequent targets. As a just-released statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), supported by 600-plus signatories (including PRH, Scholastic, S&S, PEN and the American Library Association), attests, this sudden rise in censorship “is deeply concerning”.

The ABA has signed the NCAC statement. But in September, the ABA redefined its own Ends Policy on free expression in light of its newly adopted anti-racism and diversity commitment, and that redefinition opened up a controversy of its own: Maine bookstore owner Kenny Brechner, who had served as an ABA director for four-plus years, resigned from the board because of it. From earlier language stating that ABA legal and regulatory policy would reflect “the interests of independent bookstores, including free expression and fair-trade practices”, the policy now states that “core members have the resources in support of their right to freedom of expression”, language that Brechner cited as “nebulous” at best. “In choosing to engage in a selective… response to speech,” he continued, in order to protect “a vulnerable segment of its constituents from harm”, the ABA has turned away from “a fundamental understanding [that]… for free speech to work, it must protect all speech.” At PEN America’s annual town hall, PEN president Ayad Akhtar gave a similar warning. 

On the move
Delta and now Omicron have played havoc with US publishers’ plans to return to the office. Covid is also complicating the integration process for the former Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) trade lines into HarperCollins (HC), and for Workman’s getting to know its new owner, Hachette. It’s been almost two years since Sonny Mehta died, and it was clear that, post-Mehta, changes would come to Penguin Random House’s Knopf/Doubleday group. In a recent flurry, many have. After being appointed to run Pantheon, Lisa Lucas has been given more autonomy than her predecessors had enjoyed; Anchor Books, the first trade paperback publisher in the US, will also originate hardcovers; Knopf has entrusted Lexy Bloom to expand its cookbook profile; and KDPG publicity will be centralised, but not under Paul Bogaards, who after 32 years is leaving the company. 

After the earthquake of John Sargent’s exit a year ago, changes have also taken place at Macmillan under his successor Don Weisberg. Most recently, Jonathan Galassi, long-time president of the Farrar, Straus & Giroux subsidiary, became FSG chairman, passing the presidency and executive control to Mitzi Angel; Eric Chinski has stepped down as FSG editor-in-chief and was succeeded by Jenna Johnson, though Chinski remains a senior editor. 

PRH had hoped to own Simon & Schuster by year’s end, but a huge question mark hangs over that betrothal. Barack Obama’s Department of Justice (DoJ) had (misguidedly, in the opinion of many) sued publishers and Apple over collusion rather than target the ultimate monopolist in the room, Amazon. Joe Biden’s DoJ has again eschewed the most egregious target. Buying S&S would make PRH even more of a behemoth, but since Viacom is set on selling, the DoJ also ought to ponder who will buy S&S if PRH doesn’t. No one at S&S seemed to want to be bought by Rupert Murdoch, and now that HC has bulked up with HMH, HC might be stopped from doing so on the same grounds as PRH. A private equity buyer, rather than investing in S&S’ future, might well strip it of assets or starve it of cash, as they are wont to do. That wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest—other than the equity firm’s. 

Much food for thought, and so much to be decided in 2022. Better enjoy some holiday cheer (socially distanced, vaccinated and boosted) while we can! 

Gayle Feldman is The Bookseller’s US correspondent