Student searching for books in a bookstore

How Independent Bookstores Will Survive COVID-19

10+ min read • Mar 04, 2021 • Kayla Voigt

12.

That’s the average number of books most Americans read in a year. But of course, 2020 was no average year. More than 5 million users on Goodreads pledged to read over 330,000 books for their annual reading challenge, compared to only 2 million users for 2021.

2020 saw a resurgence of reading for many people stuck at home—iPhones only get you so far. Before you lament the rise of smartphones, young people actually read more than their elders. In fact, 80% of young adults read at least 1 book in the last year, while only 68% of 50–64 year-olds and 69% of readers over 65 have.  

Print sales are up by almost 8%, a new high after years of critics and consumers alike declaring, “Print is dead!” 

Every Small Business’s Enemy: Amazon

Amazon’s sheer size and scale make it difficult for the average independent bookstore to compete. “If Amazon really wipes out independent bookstores, the end result isn’t just going to be that they get all the book sales in the world,” Andy Hunter, the founder of Bookshop.org, told TIME. “It’s going to be that people read fewer books.”

The retail scene today looks very different from when Amazon arrived in 1995 (RIP Borders). Amazon accounts for half of all global book sales, a number that’s only growing—jumping 16% in the last year. That’s partially because Amazon can afford to sell books at a loss. Take Britt Bennett’s 2020 sensation, The Vanishing Half. Retailing for $27.00 at most bookstores, the #1 NYT bestseller for 33 weeks strong only costs $16.86 on Amazon

Hunter founded Bookshop.org in an effort to take on Amazon, giving independent booksellers a central marketplace to sell books without undercutting them. Buying books through Bookshop.org gives 30% of the price back to an independent store, and if customers don’t select a specific shop, 10% of the sales distribute evenly among all the participating bookstores. 

What was once a small startup hoping for conscious consumers exploded during the pandemic, they’ve raised $11 million and counting for local bookstores, growing the business 100x almost overnight. “We experienced about 2 and a half years of growth in 3 weeks,” Hunter told TIME.

Bookstores Ask for Help from Their Communities

Besides new platforms like Bookshop.org, many independent booksellers have expanded their marketing efforts to encourage consumers to shop local.

One of the most famous (and most beloved) indie bookstores in the US, The Strand, saw revenues drop 70%, and by October, their PPP funding ran out. “It’s tough for small-business owners,” Bass Wyden, third-generation owner, told Business Insider. “We survived ebooks—even Amazon was fine. But COVID is really what has stopped us in our socks.”

She started a campaign to “Save the Strand,” sparking lines that snaked 4 city blocks:

Iconic Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company found itself in similar dire straits, even with support from the French government. With sales down 80%, owners sent a last-ditch email effort to encourage people to buy a book from afar. So many people ordered they had to close down their online store within a week:

NYC favorite McNally-Jackson began the “Don’t Box Out Bookstores” event, advertising “Books curated by real people, not a creepy algorithm.”

Moving Programming Online

Part of the problem is that COVID took away what makes independent booksellers so special: the ability to browse or attend events that interest you. Booksellers immediately pivoted to virtual events, from storytime for children to panel conversations on race, politics, or the impact of the pandemic.

For tech-savvy owners, online events may present a stop-gap to recover some sales, with bookstores charging ticket prices and bagging big-name authors to present virtually. “We are getting people to buy books,” Riley Davis of Next Chapter Books told Publisher’s Weekly. “A quarter of our total sales of The Glass Hotel were attributed to Emily St. John Mandel’s virtual event.”

But what’s more important? Staying top-of-mind for members of the community who aren’t visiting the store in-person. “Readers are adaptable,” Paul Bogaards, deputy publisher of Knopf and Pantheon, told Publisher’s Weekly. “What you lose in a virtual setting is that intimacy and electricity, the collective intake of breath when an author takes the stage. What you gain, potentially, is an ability to scale up, as well as ease of use. From a publishing perspective, the economics of virtual tours are pretty compelling. That said, we are looking forward to the moment when we are able to resume physical tours.”

Independent Bookstores Need More Support

Overall, more people are reading and buying books than in the past, which is a very good thing. “There have been frontlist successes like A Promised Land or Untamed, absolutely,” Madeline Macintosh, CEO of Penguin Random House, told The New York Times. “But things like The Very Hungry Caterpillar have sold more copies than we have in the past. It’s just this remarkable lift of the whole market.” 

But independent bookstores may not see that revenue unless consumers make conscious choices. More than 20% of all independent booksellers are at risk of closing, with the American Booksellers Association projecting more than 1 store closing every week since the pandemic began. 

“Independent bookstores operate on razor-thin margins,” Allison K. Hill, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, told TIME. “There’s no doubt that it will take a lot of support from customers, communities, the government, and publishers to ensure that they make it to the other side of this.” 

SHARE

Kayla Voigt

Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.