Coronavirus is wreaking havoc on businesses big and small, especially those which were struggling before the pandemic. The bookselling and publishing industries have grown more and more vulnerable over the years, as reading habits dwindle across America. Two years ago, leisure reading hit an all-time low in the US. In 2019, CNBC reported that 24 percent of American adults hadn’t read a book in the past year. But quarantine could turn things around.

Last month, Facebook mentions of Barnes & Noble ($NYSE:BKS) peaked at 23,100. The bookstore chain hadn’t seen that much Facebook attention since last August.

Books-A-Million ($NASDAQ:BAMM), the second largest bookstore chain in the United States, saw a similar social media trend. The Alabama-based company’s Facebook mentions shot up to 31,000 this month.

Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million are offering curbside pickup for their open locations, but both booksellers have had to temporarily close some of their stores. A few B&N locations are shutting their doors for good. And reduced foot traffic means fewer sales for these companies. 

Adding insult to injury, more readers are giving their money to Amazon ($NASDAQ:AMZN). According to BookStat, the online retailer accounts for over 90 percent of ebooks and audiobooks, and around 42 to 45 percent of print sales. Below are the top-ranking books among Amazon’s bestsellers from late March until mid-May.

Book 

Average Sales Rank

Days Ranked

Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer

1.8

6

My First Learn to Write Workbook: Practice for Kids

3.4

48

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

4

96

Break Shot: My First 21 Years by James Taylor

5

39

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

7

48

Untamed by Glennon Doyle Melton

8

96

School Zone Big Preschool Workbook

8

30

Magnolia Table, Volume 2: A Collection of Recipes for Gathering by Joanna Gaines

10

39

Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and into Your Life by John Bishop

12 48

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling

12 48

But there are positive forces out there hoping to reverse the detriment. Andy Hunter founded the publishing nonprofit Electric Literature, co-founded the web magazine and publisher Catapult, and helped establish the website LitHub. His new start-up, Bookshop, is an online book marketplace that gives independent bookstores access to a wider audience of readers. Independent retailers make 25% in commissions via Bookshop, as opposed to the 4.5% Amazon offers referrers. 

“It's not really about disrupting an industry,” Hunter told Wired. “It's about reinforcing an industry. Bookshop is about pulling back from the disruptive influence of Amazon.”

It's true, small and independent booksellers are taking the hardest hit. While LA-based bookstore Skylight Books has been receiving an uptick in online orders over the past few months, it's not enough to outweigh the economic turmoil. Manager Steven Salardino has been with the company since their doors opened in 1996. "In 2008, right before the recession hit, we added another storefront. Those were tough years, but we pushed through," he says. "The pandemic is like nothing I have ever seen, and now we are struggling to make a fraction of the sales we had before. About half the staff are working from home, we are not working out of the store at all."

Despite the cultural shift away from reading in America, the past four years had been good to Skylight. On an average weekend, stores would be packed with people browsing and buying. In-store author events often attracted capacity crowds. Now, Salardino's staff is focusing on social media marketing, virtual events, and podcasts to drive sales and bond the community. Skylight will soon offer curbside pickup, but Salardino worries it won't be the same.

Skylight Books

"It's a lot of work and doesn't translate to anywhere near the sales we would normally be having. Nor does it replace the feeling of being in a bookstore, of being surrounded by pages full of feelings and expressions and ideas, and of seeing other readers soaking it in," he says. "So much about what makes bookstores special is the way they promote an atmosphere of browsing. To survive, we really need to get back to being a traditional independent bookstore." 

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online - jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings - and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales. 

Further Reading: