Booksellers say COVID-19 has helped and hurt Canada’s author industry
When Christopher DiRaddo’s second book was released last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Montreal author was disappointed he couldn’t mark the achievement with a glitzy in-person book launch.
Instead, he got creative. In addition to a virtual launch, he and his partner created special gift bags that included a signed copy of his book “The Family Way,” and traveled around the Montreal area to deliver them in person to customers.
Unlike a traditional event, where he can often only spend a few moments with each attendee, he said the personalized tours give him the opportunity to form deeper connections with clients and old friends.
“In a weird way, it was almost like a reimagining of what a book launch could be,” he said in a recent phone interview.
As in-person literary events resume, authors like DiRaddo say the creative marketing solutions learned during the shutdowns, along with a pandemic-spurred increase in reading, give them hope for the future of their industry.
Several authors and publishers interviewed by The Canadian Press said the pandemic has been difficult for physical stores, which have faced weeks or months of forced closures, capacity limits and cancellations of book launches and met.
Chris Hall, co-owner of Winnipeg-based McNally Robinson Booksellers, said while 2020 has been a “catastrophic” year for many small bookstores, including his own, there are signs of a rebound.
While every store is different, he said his chain “came back strong” in 2021, topping its 2019 sales despite the challenges of the pandemic and the near market collapse of book categories such as travel.
Hall, who is also chairman of the board of directors of the Canadian Independent Booksellers Association, attributes the positive change to the growing willingness of Canadians to support local businesses and to more people who started reading when other activities have been cancelled.
“After a few months, there’s not much Netflix left that you can watch,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Statistics Canada found that total book sales in Canada fell 7.7% from 2018 to 2020 – a phenomenon it attributed in a February report to “the national closure of bookstores in the first months of the pandemic, as well as capacity limits in bookstores after they open and consumer reluctance to visit public places.”
Although last year’s figures were not released, Statistics Canada suggested in its report that there has been growth in retail book sales in 2021 as restrictions on other entertainment options have encouraged more people to start reading.
Nevertheless, the industry continues to face volatility and “is grappling with challenges as supply chain issues impact stationers and print capacity, shipment availability, networks transportation and costs,” the report said.
Data from BookNet Canada, a non-profit organization that serves the country’s book industry, indicated that sales of physical books rose 1.6% in 2021 compared to 2020, although they remained below 2019 levels.
In an email, suggested nonprofit sales were up 3% this year compared to the same period last year.
While the hard data pointing to improving fortunes is still preliminary and often anecdotal, authors and booksellers who spoke to The Canadian Press see reason for optimism and caution.
The weekend-long Montreal Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival is hosting in-person events this year, including book launches, networking events and panel discussions.
Sruti Islam, bookseller and creator of the online literary space Weird Era, participated Friday in a discussion moderated by DiRaddo on the evolution of book promotion.
Islam, who works with Montreal-based independent bookstore Librairie St-Henri, said the pandemic is causing challenges not only with closures and canceled events, but also with supply chains, resulting in out-of-stock books that sometimes took a long time to arrive.
On the other hand, she said it created an opportunity to hold online events, which were very crowded. She also started a literary podcast, which is now in its second season.
She said she sees a growing public interest in political and social issues, leading to “more interaction from our neighborhood clientele wanting to engage more politically with texts and wanting more than ever support local businesses.
Hall said brick-and-mortar stores have benefited from being forced during the pandemic to improve online selling options, such as click and collect, and by boosting their social media presence.
Some authors are also getting a marketing boost from young influencers using social media platforms such as TikTok, where a subcategory often dubbed BookTok has become popular enough to boost sales of some titles, even years after their publication.
It is unclear whether the population’s newly rediscovered interest in reading will fade now that pandemic restrictions are over and people have more entertainment options.
Hall can only hope so. He said he was optimistic the pandemic was long enough to have allowed people to consolidate their reading habits and that they will want to return to those “quiet times” as the world picks up speed. He said he also hopes independent bookstores can combine their improved ability to operate online with the allure of a physical space for readers to meet.
“Amazon,” he said, “has no place to go.”
— This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 7, 2022.