Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021

Industry Assessment By Industry Professsionals

Well-established industry consultants Thad McIlroy, Cliff Guren and Steve Sieck have published a substantive chronicle of the impact of COVID-19 "on sectors aligned with or adjacent to book publishing", recognizing some of the broader impact that this pandemic may be having on the industry. The fifty page report looks at how publishing has weathered the past year, but also captures the impacts on retail outlets and libraries as well as the education and entertainment sectors. Additionally, the work notes important emerging themes -- digital technology, price-sensitivity, demand for video and more. 

The report is available at no cost to the reader and may be downloaded (without need for registration) here.

From the executive summary of the report:

Looking to 2021, most projections for the U.S. COVID-recovery economy as a whole are positive, with expected growth of 6% or more. Given that publishing sales have increased in the economically challenged environment of 2020, the prospects should be encouraging. Still, it remains to be seen whether the reading-favorable environment of stay-at-home living has been just a short-term stimulant or represents a longer-term trend; and whether books can hold their share of consumers’ discretionary time and budgets vs. the rapid growth of streaming media.

On price sensitivity:

Consumer discretionary spending should rise with the economy’s anticipated growth in 2021, a positive note for consumer book sales. 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.

On Digital Technology:

The pandemic has accelerated the analog-to-digital evolution in every sense. With September ebook sales up 22% year over year and 16% year-to-date, publishers are revisiting the format with new respect. The long-awaited payoff that educational publishers are seeing from their digital learning offerings, and the flow of venture investment to edtech innovations, are developments that trade and other publishers would do well to observe.

On the priorities for libraries:

The most contentious pre-COVID issue in the library market, a conflict over publishers’ terms for ebook offerings, was superseded in the pandemic by an explosion of patron demand for ebooks. But beyond the ultimate disposition of publisher conditions for library ebook sales, major questions remain for libraries post-vaccine(s).

The report's conclusion notes a not-unmixed set of outcomes for book publishing:

Most trade publishers enjoyed strong revenues in 2020, but with hugely lopsided sales by category, reflecting short-term social realities more than structural industry developments. Higher education publishers, in the midst of a long sectoral decline, enjoyed a good year, based on the emergency demand for digital educational content for students of all ages. Academic publishers, living in a world where budgets are adjusted by the year, not by the month, escaped 2020 mostly unscathed, yet with much cause for apprehension about their customers’ budgets in the year ahead.

An appendix lists a variety of book topics that might result in strong sales in 2021 and beyond. Again, there is no cost associated with access to the report and no registration is required to download the full text