The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Changing How People Buy Books

“Ebooks are up, audiobooks are up, hardcover was up through the Easter holidays, books for children, books for gifts. The sense is that it might just have been a holiday blip,” Hildrick-Smith says; he says he expects the data for after Easter to become available soon, but until then it’s hard to make a strong assertion about the state of the marketplace.

It’s not all rosy—in fact, it’s a dire time for a large portion of treasured indie shops, as these book sales are not getting equally distributed. While the pandemic caused a spike in interest in Bookshop, buyers have also been flocking to Amazon, which was already the dominant force in bookselling. While Amazon designated books as “non-essential” items, thus elongating shipping times, its vast selection and reputation for consistency have kept its position strong.

“Amazon’s market share by default, we estimate, will grow to at least 70 percent of the market on the basis of the month of April, up from just over 50 percent in the pre-Covid period,” Hildick-Smith says. (Through a spokesperson, Amazon declined to comment on its sales.)

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Meanwhile, many independent bookstores are hurting. Some have turned to crowdfunding as a temporary fix, including San Francisco’s famous City Lights Bookstore and Oakland’s beloved Marcus Books, the oldest black bookstore in the country. Other fundraising attempts are trying to revive the indie community writ large; the American Booksellers Association partnered with the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, Reese’s Book Club, and author James Patterson for the #SaveIndieBookstores campaign, raising more than $750,000. And Bookshop’s fundraising arm, which gives a portion of its profits to indie bookstores who sign up, has raised north of $900,000. Although these efforts can provide necessary financial padding for endangered shops, adapting to the new sales landscape is also crucial.

“Indie bookstores across the country are obviously struggling. Many will not survive this,” Chris Morrow, the founder of the Vermont- and New York-based Northshire Books, says. “Much will depend on what the economy looks like in two months, and during the holidays at the end of the year. Lots of us could open soon, but then not be able to survive the recession.”

In Lawrence, Kansas, Raven Bookstore owner Danny Caine says the pandemic has required a dramatic change in how Raven does business. “We’ve switched from an events-and-browsing bookstore to a miniature mail order warehouse,” he says. The shop received a Paycheck Protection Program small business loan, and Caine hopes the grant coupled with strong online sales will keep the store in business without furloughs or pay cuts.

Barnes & Noble, once considered the swashbuckling destroyer-of-indies, has shrunk in Amazon’s increasingly mammoth shadow; after years of financial difficulties, it was purchased by a hedge fund in 2019. Now, Daunt is using the widespread store closures as a way to revitalize the brand. “When we are reopened, they’re going to be much more attractive and better laid out,” he says. Daunt hopes to lure the McNally Jackson crowd in this way, and hopes that sheltering in place will make people nostalgic for browsing. “People are going to miss their bookstores,” he says.

All booksellers can do now is hope that is true and continue trying to make online sales in the interim. “Hard to see where it is all going,” Morrow says. “But booksellers are a hardy bunch.” Their next chapter begins when the pandemic ends.

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