Virus or not, will you still buy books despite little distractions like Donald Trump inspiring his worshippers to storm the Capitol and his foes to draft impeachment papers?

If so, you’re not alone. Much of the news is cheery in “COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021,” a free 50-page report from three seasoned industry consultants, Cliff Guren of Syntopical, Thad McIlroy of The Future of Publishing, and Steven Sieck of SKS Advisors.

True, the coronavirus has bankrupted some brick-and-mortar stories, and libraries will have to compete at budget time with other agencies the virus is battering. But publishers themselves have fared surprisingly well.

Working at home to avoid the contagion, millions have ditched their commutes and are now ordering books online from Amazon and other big retailers. Many Americans, at least those not saddled with new childcare burdens, enjoy more reading time.

Savvy publishers also will be able to sell directly to consumers directly, including those home-schooling their children. Print on demand should make all kinds of things possible. Same for electronic books, whose September sales grew 22 percent year over year. And the “online first” publishing model may become increasingly attractive.

You can download the report in PDF and ePub also read a news release and thoughtful write-ups from Andrew Albanese at Publisher’s Weekly and consultant Mike Shatzkin at Idea Logical. Update: Props to Thad for making the report available in ePub—so much easier to read on mobile devices and in other situations.

The bad news—and a multi-billion opportunity

The report covers plenty of territory, but one observation in particular leapt out at me—how publishers have stayed afloat partly because they are so focused on affluent consumers, who tend to be less affected by the virus than America at large.

Backing up their claims, the authors reached back to some 2015 statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing in their words that “the top 10% of earners spent nearly 8½ times more on reading than the bottom 10%. And so while the pandemic is hitting lower earners financially more heavily than the more prosperous, this is at worst a minor negative indicator for publishing’s bottom line.”

On the surface, that tidbit would seem to delight. Hooray! Publishers so far have been more virus-proof than, say, restaurants or brick-and-mortar bookstores in malls.

But the ultimate message is a downer in a certain way, and not just in regard to the threat to democracy if financial and cultural gaps grow between rich and poor Americans. Unwittingly, between the lines, the report is implying that major publishers, at least, are leaving a lot of money on the table by focusing on the well-heeled at the expense of the masses.

Ebook prices from them have been too high, as I see it, to tempt many consumers, and publishers should not take the status quo for granted or even be happy with it if they look ahead.

“Consumer discretionary spending should rise with the economy’s anticipated growth in 2021, a positive note for consumer book sales,” the report itself says while citing widely accepted forecasts of six percent for such spending as a whole. “But there are clear signs of demand elasticity in, for example, consumer willingness to add or cancel video streaming services to lower cost, and resistance to paying high prices for home rental of first-run movies; and in the high demand for library ebook lending.”

Too many publishers, in my opinion, would rather protect their infrastructure for paper books than assure their digital titles maximum distribution by pricing them reasonably. There is also the issue of editorial content of the books. Small publishers and self-publishers are dominating category fiction such as romance.

Even with that factored in, the entire publishing business is still leaving billions on the table. Household expenditures for books are just a fraction of the several thousand dollars a year that the typical American household spends on other forms of entertainment.

Such is the bad news, worsened by the virus, which if anything is exacerbating income and wealth differences. And the good news? Lots and lots of potential upside for publishers of all sizes. The industry simply needs to think more about expanding the universe of readers and less about such short-sighted strategies as overpricing ebooks and and in the future especially jacking up prices for library ebooks.

One way to help address the reading gap would be the creation of national library endowment, which, though intended to aid society as a whole, would also help the publishing industry. Public libraries can spend only a pathetic $1.7 billion or so a year on content of all kinds. Long term, the fiscal nightmare from the virus crisis could hurt content in particular; financially besieged libraries tend to shrink book budgets rather than fire librarians.

Far more money also should be around for libraries to promote books, including individual titles. Both publishers and bookstores could piggyback on library-oriented promotional efforts and library catalogues could include buying links not just to online bookstores but even neighborhood ones.

We would also do well to improve school libraries and beef up family literacy—parental role models go a long way. explains how such an endowment could come about, starting with a series of conferences of donors and other stakeholders, not just librarians but also publishers. Also see a related TeleRead article suggesting that this could be an initiative from such organizations as the Panorama Project and the Book Industry Study Group (as well as such obvious possibilities as the American Library Association and other library organizations).

I know. Some publishers complain that library borrowing steals from retail sales. But despite the willingness of many consumers to check out books rather than buy when prices are too high, the truth is more complex.

Borrowing of library ebooks has surged during the epidemic, but print book sales have risen, too—8.2 percent in 2020. The message here is that publishers can be both pro-library and solvent. And pro-library is really pro-publisher since today’s borrower may be tomorrow’s buyer even if direct correlations may not be evident. It’s the book habit that we need to encourage among the many millions who are now spending either a pittance or nothing at all on books.

Asked for his thoughts on the demographic differences in book-buying, especially during the pandemic, Thad McIlroy emailed me: “I feel there’s a major study to be done on this issue. The book publishing industry largely sells to the same well-heeled audience, year after year. The audience increases slightly as additional literate graduates enter the reading world—then declines with the deaths of the heavy-reading seniors.

“Publishers have got to figure out how to reach that huge segment of the public that doesn’t have English as a first language. I don’t think it’s about literacy programs for native speakers, per se: there are a hundred ways to achieve English literacy without cost if you’re willing to do so.

“But ESL is far less available. And it’s not just the U.S: English as a foreign language is spoken by an estimated 1.5 billion billion outside the U.S. and digital reading offers access to that enormous audience.”

My own take on this would be that literacy development isn’t just about knowledge or skills, but also about a sheer interest in reading that family literacy efforts and other approaches can encourage through parental role models, whether or not we’re talking about native speaker-readers.

Of course English-as-a-second language classes are nothing to be dismissed, as one of various ways to expand the number of readers both in the U.S. and abroad.

But that’s just a detail, however important. Here’s the main point:

Thad understands the need to study the demographics of book purchasing and better deal with the issue of the book publishing industry simply selling to “the same well-heeled audience, year after year.”

More generously supported libraries, as I see it, would be one way to get the book industry out of its present rut. Otherwise don’t count on big sales increases without special boosts such as the extra leisure time the virus has created for some Americans.

Thad suggested that I catch up with Cliff Guren, who, of the trio behind the report, is the one most in touch with the library scene. Via email, Cliff made three points, which I’ll reproduce in full:

—“With regard to federal funding for libraries: If the Democrats win both Georgia seats (fingers crossed), it is certainly more likely that we’ll see some additional federal relief for public libraries.” Of course we know what happened down there! “Perhaps more importantly, it’s also more likely that we’ll see federal relief for states and cities. As you know, federal funds account for a small percentage of public library funding—most of it comes from the state, county, and/or city. Virtually every city in the country is going to be dealing with huge tax revenue deficits for years to come. Federal relief will help, but is unlikely to fill the gap, especially over the long term. In addition, libraries will be under intense pressure to spend more on job training, etc., likely at the expense of collection development. The role of public libraries has been changing, and will continue to do so—reading will remain central to their mission, but how books fit in (especially physical books) remains to be seen.

—“As noted in our report, the pandemic has led to a lift in ebook sales and lending. I suspect the increases in sales and borrowing will last beyond the pandemic. Familiarity breeds contentment. And, as you note, we are all getting used to doing more and more online and on our phones. Convenience is addictive.

—“With regard to libraries and discovery—I agree that libraries have an increasingly important role in driving discovery, but discovery doesn’t automatically (or uniformly) drive sales. It’s relatively easy to assess the impact of specific events (such as author readings) on sales—much harder to assess the long-term impact of library promotion and availability of a specific title on sales. The Panorama Project is working on this, but it’s going to take time and significant industry cooperation/coordination to get to authoritative results.”

I’m all in favor of such studies, but while individual titles count, we need to think in broader terms as far as libraries promoting the book culture and the related buying—and not just among the well-to-do.