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How The Pandemic Is Affecting Book Publishing Industry

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It seems like telling Americans to stay inside for weeks on end should be good for the publishing business - right? - since people have more time to read, after all. But like everything else right now, the publishing industry has been upended. Publishers have pushed back release dates for many new books, bookstores have been closed, book tours and festivals have been put on hold, and even Amazon delayed shipment of books until recently to prioritize essential items, like cleaning supplies and food. So here to talk about how the publishing industry is adapting during this pandemic is Jim Milliot. He's the editorial director at Publishers Weekly.

Welcome.

JIM MILLIOT: Nice to be here.

CHANG: So we have a sense that more people are reading now, but have we actually seen higher book sales since the pandemic began?

MILLIOT: No, not really.

CHANG: Really?

MILLIOT: Because some of the things you alluded to in your opening have really made an impact on the availability and ability of consumers to buy books. Having said all that, the decline hasn't been as bad as what some people thought. Sales are only down 1% through mid-May.

CHANG: Well, are we seeing at least some shift in dates for when books are getting published?

MILLIOT: Yeah, we certainly have. That was actually one of the first things that did happen because publishers were afraid of bookstores closing, where you're going to tour, how are we going to get any new books into stores or to Amazon, that sort of thing. So we've started a database that publishers could submit their change of dates. And we had, at this point, about 800 or so.

CHANG: That's a lot.

MILLIOT: It's more than normal.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MILLIOT: And, you know, they shifted up from the spring to the fall. Some they shifted even into next year.

CHANG: Wow. Well, for those books that did come out this spring - and curiously, how did authors connect with readers if they don't have the same sort of sampling of book tours and festivals to attend?

MILLIOT: Well, you know, the go-to thing right now is, you know, virtual or online tours. That seems to be working fairly well.

CHANG: People are really showing up en masse and dialing into those Zoom book readings and stuff?

MILLIOT: Right. Yeah, they have. And they actually get a fair amount and sometimes more viewers and people who would actually show up in the stores.

CHANG: Right. And they don't have that traffic now.

MILLIOT: Right. They don't have the traffic.

CHANG: So how are local bookstores struggling to stay afloat? What kind of support are they getting during this time?

MILLIOT: Well, there's a couple of things. On the outside, there's been a lot of fundraising. Publishers themselves have made contributions to an organization called Binc, which is a charitable foundation that supports particular bookstore workers who may be furloughed or are having a tough time. There was a number of other fundraising things. James Patterson led in an effort that raised over a million dollars. And stores themselves have been doing their own GoFundMe campaigns, which, by and large, have done fairly well.

CHANG: Well, that's good to hear. But I'm curious, like, for an author right now who's sitting on a manuscript hoping to eventually sell it, how has this pandemic impacted opportunities available even in the short term or medium term for them?

MILLIOT: There's a split philosophy on this, if you will, among the agents. Some think that, well, it's business as usual, and publishers are going to need books in 2021. Others think they'd rather hold off a little bit to see what financial shape the publishers are in and see what the landscape might turn into.

CHANG: Jim Milliot, the editorial director at Publishers Weekly, thank you very much for joining us today.

MILLIOT: Happy to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "I WANT YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.