BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York. This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Analysts and assorted other worry warts have long foreseen the death of the publishing industry destined to be trampled under the heavy boots of our screen-dominated culture, risk-averse mega-houses. And of course, Jeff Bezos.
NEWS CLIP Amazon.com is the reason that there is all this heartache in the book industry.
NEWS CLIP All the bookstores are disappearing. The independents are gone, and Barnes and Noble is the only thing standing. And they're got a major fight going on about the future — even of Barnes and Noble. But the whole industry has changed.
NEWS CLIP Well, the publishing industry has been doomed as long as I've been in the publishing industry, which is 25 years. So it's an industry that is in a state of perpetual crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet in 2022, the publishing world seems to have a steady pulse. Reading among the average American drifting down year after year since the early 2000s suddenly took an upward turn in 2020. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American adult began reading about 20 minutes a day, an increase of 4 minutes from the year prior, and book sales are up too. But those vitals are not enough to bestow a clean bill of health on a trouble-prone system.
NEWS CLIP Workers are demanding HarperCollins increase pay and provide better paid leave benefits, as well as address its lack of diversity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Last month, more than 250 employees at HarperCollins went on an open-ended strike after months of fruitless contract negotiations. The publisher still hasn't agreed to substantially raise wages, despite having reaped record profits in 2020 and 2021. In September, in search of a clearer assessment of the book industry, we called Alexandra Alter, who covers publishing and the literary world for The New York Times.
ALEXANDRA ALTER People are cautiously and surprisingly optimistic. A couple of years ago, when the pandemic hit, everyone was braced for the collapse of the book retail ecosystem, you know, a real shrinking of independent bookstores.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oh yeah
ALEXANDRA ALTER They expected their sales to tank. And instead, what we saw was an incredible boom. It makes sense if you think about it. You know, there were no movie theaters to go to. Concerts were canceled. You couldn't get on a flight that easily, but you could still read. And a lot of people did. Print sales skyrocketed in 2020. They were up 8%. It was the first big increase in something like 18 years, and it continued to rise in 2021.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How are we doing so far in 2022?
ALEXANDRA ALTER We have seen a softening of print sales so far this year, mainly because the last couple of years were so extraordinary. Sales are still well above what they were in 2019. So it seems like the gains aren't fleeting, at least. And what's even, I think, more encouraging to people is to see the strengthening of the independent bookstore ecosystem. Everyone, I think, was rightfully concerned that the shutdown would put a lot of bookstores out of business. The amazing thing was not only did the bookstores, many of them survived, but many of them are thriving. And In the last couple of years, more than 300 new bookstores have opened up across the country, and a lot of younger, more diverse owners are coming into the business. And that's a very exciting and enriching thing that is pretty new and was a side effect in some odd way of the pandemic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Independent bookstores became a kind of nexus of community activity, right? Curbside pickup, ordering from them online — you never really ordered from them online before?
ALEXANDRA ALTER Yes. Communities really rallied around those shops. People bought gift cards so that when the stores reopen, they could use them, but they could give them a cash infusion now. Stores were very creative. They did bicycle deliveries and curbside pick up. And as you said, many of them transformed overnight into online businesses, which is something that independent stores broadly hadn't been doing that effectively. That wasn't sort of why people wanted to shop there, but in a pinch when they couldn't, people found that they could order online. And I think that business has really trained a lot of book lovers who might have automatically gone to Amazon for an online book to think, Actually, I can buy from my independent or I can go to Bookshop.org, which also emerged during the pandemic as an alternative to Amazon and funnel some money back to independent stores. So it's really changed, I think, the dynamics of online retailing and made it something that independents can also benefit from. Instead of like this crushing, oppressive source of competition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The struggle to keep independent bookstores open has played out in pop culture. You know, iconic movies like You've Got Mail, where Meg Ryan's indie store is bought up by Tom Hanks's Fox Books standing in for Barnes & Noble.
YOU’VE GOT MAIL CLIP I think you could discover a lot of things if you really knew me.
YOU’VE GOT MAIL CLIP If I really knew you, I know what I would find. Instead of a brain, a cash register, instead of a heart, a bottom line.
ALEXANDRA ALTER If they remade that movie, the Barnes and Noble, the owner would be the underdog. You know, Barnes and Noble has been struggling because they have been up against Amazon as much as independent stores have. But, you know, in recent years, people who love books wanted to support their independent bookstore. And Barnes & Noble became kind of like this generic chain store. That has started to turn around under the leadership of their new chief executive, James Daunt, who was very successful in the U.K. with a chain called Waterstones, which he transformed by basically modeling these chain stores on independent stores, saying we're going to give more autonomy to the booksellers to sort of reflect what their community’s interests are. We're not going to take money from publishers to put what they want at the front of the stores, which is something that Barnes & Noble did for a long time. And I think we've seen Barnes & Noble doing a bit better. And certainly they have some new stores that are opening. They're not closing stores at the same rate they were. The pandemic was still extremely hard on them, but it wasn't as devastating as people anticipated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And it seems like for younger readers, especially, they like to have physical books.
ALEXANDRA ALTER One of the reasons people tell me is Book-tok, which is these communities of book lovers on Tik-Tok who have these packed bookshelves behind them, and they give very passionate reviews and they can send a book soaring up the bestseller list, even a book that came out, you know, years and years ago.
BOOK-TOK CLIP Convincing you to read books based off their first lines. They've never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart, and they never will.
BOOK-TOK CLIP Here are some more books that had me on the edge of my seat the entire time. The Cabin at the End of the World by Peter Tremblay. I literally flew through this and one day I couldn't read it fast enough…
ALEXANDRA ALTER And authors tell me that book-tokers like to have the print copy. They want to hold it up. They want it on their shelf. One interesting conundrum publishers are facing now is that because people want more print books, which they didn't expect that to be the case in 2022, everyone was thinking it would be more of an e-book economy, there aren't enough printers, and so they get into these backlogs at the printing presses — stuff gets out of stock, they have to shift publication dates, shift operations overseas. And so it's gotten very complicated. A lot of printer jams.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk supply chain. Now we're facing strikes and cargo ships are parked out at sea because there aren't dockworkers to unload them. There aren't truck drivers to deliver the contents to the bookstores. It's so much, right?
ALEXANDRA ALTER I mean, it goes to the very basic material that a book is made of — to paper. You know, there was a time during the pandemic when there were paper shortages. A lot of the pulp was being used for packaging for Amazon and things, and paper prices went up. The printing presses are overbooked and there aren't enough of them. Several of them shut down when people thought e-books were going to be the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I heard from agents and publishers that a season of new releases was put on ice for months because Michelle Obama's Becoming had pretty much commandeered all the printing presses in the U.S..
ALEXANDRA ALTER It's very interesting that you bring that up because that was before the pandemic, but we are already seeing that squeeze at the printing presses where they didn't have enough capacity. And it really became an issue around Michelle Obama's release because I think it was a massive first printing, something like 2 million copies. And then of course, they needed to reprint because she sold more than that. And often publishers will coordinate around big release dates, mostly because they don't want to lose all the publicity, the book store displays, all that stuff. You don't want all the oxygen sucked out by a huge author like a Harry Potter book comes out and no one reads your debut novel. But this was a little bit more complicated because, as you said, this was a matter of capacity of the printing presses. The question is, are publishers going to bite the bullet and is the industry going to see more investments in the printing plants which are ill equipped to meet the demand for print books at this moment? They're certainly will be hard pressed to meet a demand for even more, which is a possibility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And how about shipping containers? Your colleague Elizabeth Harris wrote that publishing professionals say that a container, which can hold roughly 35,000 books, used to cost them about $2500 but now it can cost as much as $25,000.
ALEXANDRA ALTER Yeah, there is incredible pressure, I think, on the industry right now from the supply chain costs in the way those have gone up. In fact, to the degree that you saw, you know, arguably the most successful and biggest publishing house in the country, in the world, Penguin Random House — in their most recent earnings report, they cited a drop in earnings because it costs a lot more to get those books printed and shipped and delivered. And I think that's something people are concerned about. Nobody wants to raise the price of books. I think everyone understands that customers are very price-conscious right now, and a hardcover is already around $30. That's an investment, you know. But at the same time, there's not a lot of places in the supply chain where you can save money, particularly when you're looking at an analog product like a book, like every step of the way is something that you need that machinery, you need those workers. There's no sort of efficiency to be gained at this point that people are seeing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We talked about supply chain issues. What about labor issues? Publishers Weekly released a report earlier this month on growing discontent over entry level pay in the industry. They found that at the higher end of entry level salaries in 2021, it was like $45,000 a year. And that's hardly enough to survive in New York City, where a lot of these publishers are based, at least not without outside support. Has some of the larger push for diversity in the industry extended to a conversation about working conditions and pay? If the salaries are this low, it's only people who can afford not to work there, who would be able to afford to work there. And so that excludes a lot of communities of color.
ALEXANDRA ALTER It's quite interesting to see people being open about what they make. There was the movement in 2020 where people were putting up notices on social media saying publishing paid me. It was both authors talking about their advances. But you're also seeing publishing industry employees talking about their wages. And HarperCollins recently saw some of its employees who are part of a union go on a strike. They were demanding additional pay and better family leave benefits and a stronger commitment to diversity from the company. I do think there's going to be more collective action in publishing. And the question is, how are publishers going to respond to that? We've talked about the cost constraints they're facing. And they have long relied on highly educated workers that aren't always highly compensated. Will that have to change for them to continue to attract new employees?
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you see as having the biggest impact on publishing going forward? Supply chains, mergers, the overall state of the economy. I mean – you got a magic eight ball?
ALEXANDRA ALTER I think a big question, of course, at the moment is you mentioned consolidation. And right now the publishing industry has five big publishing houses and then a constellation of midsize and independent houses. And we've seen a lot of the power to attract bestselling authors shift over to those bigger houses. And in their efforts to continue to make a profit, they tend to focus on those big blockbuster authors. Those are the books they spend the most on advances for. Those are the ones they market the most and put forward to booksellers, to media. And so it definitely trickles down to readers as well. The other thing I think people are really wondering about is just the overall state of the economy. And books became so critical for people during the pandemic. People held on to their love of reading or built up a new habit. And publishers are very nervous about whether that discretionary spending will continue if there is a recession. And what impact will the health of the overall economy have on people's book buying and reading habits?
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was a pleasure talking to you, Alexandra. Thank you so much.
ALEXANDRA ALTER Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun and interesting to talk to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alexandra Alter covers publishing in the literary world for The New York Times. Coming up, the DOJ wants to preserve competition in publishing. The suspected monopolists just say they want to make art. This is On the Media.