Here we are, a couple of weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown measures. Not to disregard the severity of the health situation, but it is fascinating to see how ebooks and online book orders are being affected when many bookstores have to close and many people can’t go out to visit even the ones that are open.
Last time I checked in on Barnes & Noble, the stores were staying open and even seeing increased business to some areas despite the disease. However, Publishers Weekly reports that Barnes & Noble has since temporarily closed 400 locations, though many of them still remain partly open in that they can fill orders for curbside pick-up. Meanwhile, after Pacific Northwest bookstore chain Powells temporarily closed all its locations in mid-March, it has seen a huge increase in online orders and rehired 100 laid-off employees to fill them.
But even more fascinating developments are happening on the ebook side. Even as libraries shutter their physical locations for the duration of the corona epidemic, Forbes reports that Library ebook lender Overdrive’s smartphone library ebook app Libby saw 247,000 downloads and 10.1 million ebook borrows last week. That’s up 30% from ebook borrows in the same week the year before. (Macmillan’s recent decision to end its library ebook embargo can only help.)
Mammoth Media, who makes the teen-targeted interactive fiction app Yarn and news-summary app CatchUp, reports a similar uptick in usage.
“Since the second week of March when most Americans were asked to remain home from work or school,” says Mammoth Media founder and CEO Benoit Vatere, “we’ve seen a 200% increase in the number of sessions across our apps. Not only are users opening them more frequently, the amount of content being consumed has drastically increased by 30%. It has sustained at this level ever since.”
The Forbes article adds that the upticks do track with the locations and times at which lockdowns were imposed, and that the boost seems largely driven by existing users reading more rather than any huge influx of newer users. This isn’t surprising, given that Powells couldn’t have seen that aforementioned increase in online orders if paper book people didn’t still prefer their paper books.
Of course, we probably won’t ever hear from the really big sellers like Amazon exactly how corona has affected their book and ebook sales, given that they are notorious for keeping their sales figures close to their chest. And I doubt we’ll hear about it from publishers until and unless they decide to make another statement about percentages the way they did a couple of years ago. But just based on the other stories I’ve mentioned so far, I have a sneaking suspicion that both print and ebook sales will be driven upward by this, as both paper and digital readers alike reach out for more of their preferred form of reading matter to fill the extra time.
As there’s no real incentive for an avowed reader to switch from one format to the other given that both formats are readily available for online purchase, I think the overall proportion of sales will proably stay about the same. (Yes, you have to wait a few days to get the paper, but that doesn’t seem to be bothering all the people ordering from Powells!) Ebook readers will buy more ebooks, and paper book readers will buy more paper. This could well be a good thing for the fiction publishing industry overall, and for big online stores like Amazon in particular, even as it unfortunately piles more hardships onto brick-and-mortar bookstore owners.
Mammoth CEO Vatere predicts that the COVID-19 epidemic is going to be another huge blow to the print periodicals industry, and that the formats and means by which people consume media will undergo more sweeping changes driven by the migration toward working remotely. Personally, I think it may be a little early to make such huge predictions just yet, but you never know—give it a couple of years, and it will probably be quite interesting to look back and see how things are different in retrospect.
One thing that occurs to me is that writers (especially romance writers) often like to set their stories during times of great social upheaval, because that makes it easier to find drama and tragedy to inflict upon their characters. I suspect that in a few years, we’re going to start seeing quite a lot of “love in the time of coronavirus” novels.
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