As fear for their industry turned to a stunned optimism last year, publishers started to rethink almost everything they had once took for granted, from how to cultivate new literary talent to the ways that they market and sell books. Live literary events like book signings and author appearances have been replaced, as with so many things, by Zoom. BookExpo, the largest gathering of publishing professionals in the United States, which typically took place in May and drew thousands of booksellers, publishers, editors, agents, authors and librarians to the Javits Center in New York, has been canceled. The convention center is now being used as a mass vaccination site.
“One of the most significant things that’s going to change is the re-evaluation of all that we do and how we do it,” said Don Weisberg, the chief executive of Macmillan.
The loss of live author events all but wiped out a significant revenue stream for bookstores. Virtual events can draw bigger and more geographically diverse crowds, and they are cheaper for publishers, but online audiences often don’t buy the book from the store that’s hosting.
Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands in Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz., said that at virtual book events, the store has sold as few as half a dozen books. At a really good virtual event, they might sell 150 copies — but that same author, in person, might sell 1,000. Some publishers have started paying her stores to put on virtual events, she said, usually between $200 and $500, which is about comparable to what they would earn if they sold 20 to 50 books, she said.
Like the big retailers, independent bookstores were also flooded with online orders, a welcome surge of business when their doors were closed, but one they were poorly set up to manage — some stores went from getting maybe a dozen orders a day to hundreds last spring. For many of them, the growth in online sales still wasn’t enough.