Paging through pandemic: Reading gets a COVID lift

John Nacion/Star Max/AP
The Strand Bookstore in New York laid off most of its staff in March. It has hired some of them back to handle online sales.

Two years ago, pediatrician-turned-author Sayantani DasGupta published the first in what became a best-selling trilogy of children’s books. Revolving around an Indian girl who makes her home in New Jersey before embarking on an adventure to save the multiverse, the “Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond” series may be fanciful but it began with a serious goal: to broaden the idea of who a hero or heroine can be.

“It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” says Ms. DasGupta, a writer of Indian heritage who was raised in the United States. 

Yet it’s not just the fictional Kiranmala who serves as a role model but also Ms. DasGupta herself. The writer prizes face-to-face interactions with fans during school visits and book tours. “They’re able to change their notion of who an author is,” she says. 

Why We Wrote This

Will buying e-books and chatting virtually with authors be enough to keep readers engaged while they’re largely stuck at home? Authors, bookstore owners, and publishers ponder the way forward.

Those in-person visits came to a screeching halt in early March, when the coronavirus began to surface. Ms. DasGupta was on the West Coast promoting the third book in the series, “The Chaos Curse,” published by Scholastic Press, and she had planned to attend several book festivals. Quickly, she found herself reckoning with a new reality in which she needed to promote her work from an electronic remove. 

The pandemic has wreaked havoc with the plans of not just authors but also publishers and booksellers. It’s a major adjustment for an industry that, until the spring, had seen numerous high-profile releases garnering attention and sales holding steady year to year, with some 689.5 million print books sold in 2019, according to Publishers Weekly. 

COVID-19, however, represented uncharted territory. On the one hand, e-book sales were rising because people were stuck at home, but on the other bookstore closures since March eliminated consumer browsing and eradicated in-store sales. 

“Even during World War I and World War II, bookstores remained open,” says Albert Greco, a business professor at Fordham University in New York who follows the publishing industry.

“We were bracing ourselves for Armageddon,” says Jennifer Enderlin, a publisher at St. Martin’s Press. “Will people have money to spend on books? Will they want to be reading?” As it turns out, while reader preferences have undergone changes – in June, books on racism were selling out online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble – the demand for print books remains.

During the pandemic, reader interest has surged in specific categories of books. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt president of trade publishing Ellen Archer has noted readers falling back on “trusted brands,” including existing titles by popular young adult writers Kwame Alexander, Lois Lowry, and Linda Sue Park. “There’s less risk-taking right now,” Ms. Archer says. Titles that nourish more than challenge have proven popular, including cooking and lifestyle titles, as well as juvenile nonfiction.

For new and emerging authors, such retrenchment among readers can be worrisome. Unable to register with readers through traditional means, and facing a public clinging to past enthusiasms, such writers must work harder to have their efforts noticed. 

“People want to be comforted,” says New Yorker staff writer Katy Waldman, who frequently writes about books. “They want to return to familiar reads. ... There’s a lot less bandwidth in the cultural imagination for new works.”

Among the authors concerned about this state of affairs is Veronica Roth. Widely popular as the creator of the young adult-focused “Divergent” series, Ms. Roth recently debuted a novel for adults, “Chosen Ones,” which Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released on April 7. “It was very much a step toward something new for me, and that made it more challenging,” Ms. Roth says. “For anyone who’s taking a step in a new direction, [the timing] is not the best.”

Having scrapped a multicity tour, Ms. Roth has participated in the sort of online events that have become omnipresent during the pandemic. Somewhat to her surprise, Ms. Roth found herself reaching readers she might not have encountered in real life. “There are a lot of places that I wasn’t going to go on the tour,” she says. “You lose something by not having it in person, but you also gain something.”

Will e-books overtake print?

Over the past few months, e-book sales have risen due to their instantaneous availability – a consideration among consumers with stores closed and Amazon deliveries taking longer – but publishers express an ongoing commitment to print books. “If you are a dyed-in-the-wool print book reader, you’re not going to suddenly switch to e-books because of the pandemic,” Ms. Enderlin says. “You’ll just go out of your way to find your print books.” 

For many readers, that has meant not just relying on Amazon but making a special effort to support local bookstores. “Retail bookstores, both chain and independents, are selling print books to customers through their websites and offering curbside or home delivery in addition to online fulfillment,” says Alison Lazarus, the executive vice president, group sales director, at the Hachette Book Group. 

“For us this isn’t just a bookstore. It’s a place of community and gathering,” says Leonard Egerton, the owner of Frugal Bookstore in Boston’s Nubian Square. “Before our store, there were no black-owned bookstores in Boston.” With the pandemic, Mr. Egerton wasn’t sure he could keep the store afloat, despite selling books online. “But our community has turned out to support us in ways that’ve just blown us away. Their actions are saying to us, ‘We want and need this bookstore here.’”

The famous Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, initially anticipated suspending all operations – both its physical stores and website – before seeing upticks in online ordering, which has continued. “Depending on the day, it would’ve been five times a previous day’s sales online,” says owner Emily Powell. “Which doesn’t begin to make up for the stores, but it’s certainly more than our processes were prepared for.”

Although Ms. Archer of Houghton Mifflin has seen “huge spikes” in e-book sales, those who imagine an all e-book future overlook the significant revenue still generated by print book sales in physical stores. “We want all of these stores to come out OK from this,” she says. Book sales at mass-merchant retailers, among them Costco and Kroger, have helped lessen the blow for publishers, but can independent bookstores – which, over the last decade, have quietly grown in number – survive the shutdowns?

“Probably the independents will struggle,” Professor Greco says. “One of the key things that made the growth of independents so successful, between 2009 and 2019, was the fact that they were community centers.” 

Such bookstores presented a social experience, something that is difficult to replicate online. The Lit. Bar in New York, the only independent bookstore in the Bronx, is owned by Noëlle Santos, who is black. It provides “an essential part of community programming,” says Khalea Underwood, a writer and editor who before the pandemic closures patronized the bar. “It’s a place for people of color to connect, not just about literature, but about life in general.” 

Books are ‘pandemic-proof’

In the end, the publishing community sees the pandemic as a period to struggle through rather than as a harbinger of major changes. Current preferences for escapism notwithstanding, readers’ behavior is likely to return to normal. “Readers are going to resume their familiar patterns and tastes,” says Paul Bogaards, a publisher at Knopf. “People are still going to read ... commercial fiction, they’re still going to read literary fiction.”

“There’s always been a feeling that books are kind of recession-proof,” Ms. Enderlin says. “We didn’t know if they were pandemic-proof, but they’re turning out to be.”

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