The Impacts of COVID-19 on the Publishing Industry

While most businesses suffered, and many have shut down since the pandemic began, the impacts of COVID-19 on the publishing industry have been mixed.

The Early Days

Publishing had a great COVID.

In 2020, the industry as a whole made $25.93 billion, slightly more than 2019’s $25.77 billion. Printed book sales reached 750 million units sold in 2020—an 8.2% increase from 2019.

This trend continued into 2021. According to Publisher’s Weekly, in 2021 booksellers sold a total of 825.7 million books. Print book sales overall have risen over 18% since early 2020, demonstrating the public’s need to look at something other than Zoom.

Individual publishing houses profited from these numbers as well. Penguin Random House enjoyed a 6% increase in global revenue from 2020 to 2021.

The primary downside that the book industry suffered during the pandemic was among retail bookstores, with a decline of about 11.3% in 2020, due in large part to less foot traffic during 2020’s extended lockdown.

Publishing’s Own Long Hauler Syndrome

While the publishing industry had a great COVID, the fallout caught up with it in the fall of 2021. After having had only mild COVID symptoms during the peak of global infection, the industry began experiencing its own version of long hauler syndrome.

As early as September 2021, paper shortages delayed the publishing of untold numbers of books. Thanks to the massive spike in online shopping, paper mills have cut back on using pulp to produce paper that we need for books and have opted to make more profitable materials such as cardboard.

More Shortages…

Labor shortages also have had an impact on the publishing industry, as we are now seeing labor shortages in print shops, warehouses, and even within publishing houses. Editors have been leaving in droves, looking for opportunities with better work-life balance (and, I’m guessing, better pay). Warehouses and book distribution centers also have seen increases in employee turnover. As of November 2021, warehouses were ranked with the third highest quit rate in the U.S.

These labor shortages contribute to the supply chain issues hitting every industry, from automobile makers to baby formula producers. But there’s a unique strain on publishing due to the fact that print capacity has been gradually diminishing over the past decade, and several large printing facilities in North America closed before COVID, in 2018.

Ports continue to experience delays and backups with an overflow of shipping containers. The labor shortage exacerbates this. With no one to unload the containers and make room for new ones, ships and their cargo are left floating offshore for weeks at a time, leading to huge delays in receiving goods, including thousands of reams of paper and books.

Combine all these issues with the soaring demand for print books brought on by the pandemic, and you’ve got yourself a classic catch-22.

The Impacts of COVID-19 on the Publishing Industry Today

Because backed up ports and supply chain issues have caused delays in printed books reaching their destinations, delays in receiving printed books mean delayed book launches. Which means delayed sales. Which means delayed recuperation of advances paid to authors. Which means delayed realization of profits for publishers.

This past fall, two of our clients’ book release dates were pushed out several weeks due to the paper shortage. As this continues to impact more authors, publishing houses have to start planning six to twelve months farther ahead than usual to manage longer lead times.

How All This Impacts YOU

Publishers are taking longer to review proposals and sign new deals. Editors have reported feeling overwhelmed. Fewer editors to bring existing projects across the finish line leaves less time available to consider new book proposals. Editors must prioritize getting the books that their house has already bought down the production line. Thus, book proposals—no matter how great they may be—might sit unopened for weeks.

In the past, the agents we work with would send a proposal to an editor and get an answer within a couple of weeks, sometimes within a few days.

As of 2022, we’ve seen editors spending four weeks or more with a proposal before making an offer, or even looking at the proposal.

What to Do

If you’re an aspiring author on the hunt for a traditional publishing deal, be ready to practice patience.

The good news is that publishers are still buying books. Before all the supply chain complications, it typically took our clients’ agents four to six weeks to sell to a publisher. Now, it can take a few of months. But they are buying!

We have also noticed that editors are less open to negotiating offers. Recently, a publisher offered one of our clients an advance that was 50% lower than expected. (Based on the average offer we’ve seen for a book of this type by an author of their stature.) The client’s agent went back to negotiate, and the publisher rescinded the offer. So, if you get an offer that feels low, you might consider taking it and finding other ways to profit from having a book.

What the Future Holds

It’s hard to say how the publishing industry will weather these issues. The supply chain problems and paper shortages might clear up in the next few months, but it doesn’t seem likely. The situation could stick around for a year or two, maybe more.

But that doesn’t mean you should wait it out. It’s also possible that the situation will get worse before it gets better. And it could be years before we see publishing return to business as usual (if it does at all). This is why I continue to recommend what I always have: write a book that sells YOU. Don’t count on a book deal or book sales to give you life-changing cash and clout. Leverage your book to increase your income, credibility, and impact, and help you leave a legacy of value for generations to come.

The Bottom Line is This:

The COVID-19 pandemic has finally caught up with the publishing industry. But if your heart is set on a traditional publishing deal, go for it. Don’t wait for it all to get better. Adjust your expectations, and get strategic about how you can leverage your book to help you achieve your bigger goals.