Publishing Nonfiction Books in the Age of Coronavirus
by Jennifer Swanson
As quarantines are slowly lifted across the United States, and people cautiously venture out, those of us in the book industry are all struggling to determine what this new normal means for our business. While no one can know for sure, I did set out to discover if there was a way to answer some of our most pressing questions facing authors of nonfiction books.
First of all, How IS nonfiction doing? Are sales up or down? The answer, it turns out, is not an easy one.
When you compare the juvenile nonfiction on NPD BookScan Bestseller list from late May 2019 to May 2020, the sales appear to be up. The majority of these nonfiction sales are for educational, activity, and workbooks, which does include some STEM titles. For example, one STEM activity book that had been selling around 200/week this time last year, is now at 500/week – and the sales at beginning of quarantine (mid-March to mid-April) jumped to 1000-3000/week.
Is it possible to tell if other nonfiction titles are doing well? Page Edmunds, associate publisher for Workman Publishing, says that answer is a bit more difficult, because the NPD BookScan Bestseller list does not distinguish among the different types of nonfiction books. “You would have to look up the sales of specific titles to be sure. But overall, you can certainly say that some nonfiction titles are selling at least as well as they were at this time last year.”
Where are most of the sales coming from? As expected, the majority of the sales are online and come from major retailers. Independent bookstores that were able to keep up a strong internet presence and continue curbside pick-up also have continued sales. As expected, since many of the bookstores have been closed to customers, “browse and find” impulse purchases are down. Hopefully, as more store open and allow customers, this should change. Still, Ms. Edmunds believes there is some positive news to be found in children’s nonfiction sales. Nice to hear.
A New York Times article of June 3, 2020 supports this idea. Although its initial report is not great, i.e. according to the article, “U.S. book sales across all categories fell more than 8 percent in March, compared with March 2019”, things are starting to look up. According to NPD BookScan in June, print book sales “were up by about 10 percent over the same week last year, with increases in both fiction and nonfiction.” Strong sales were also indicated in the “puzzles and games, educational resources, and commercial fiction.”
Where does that leave us authors? The good news is many publishers are finding new ways to publicize books. Author Sarah Albee said that Scholastic made e-galleys available for educators and reviewers, for her new book Accidental Archaeologists (November 2020
Author Kelly Lyons Starling said that for her book Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon, her publisher, Lee & Low, invited her to participate in TeachingBooks’ Virtual Book Tour project. That feature will include an audio clip of her talking about the book and a suggestion for a related activity kids can do at home.
Author Tonya Bolden said her publisher is very supportive and aware of the issues facing our country at this time. Because of this and “… in light of all the protests for social justice and millions of people in America and around the world sincerely seeking understanding and a way forward, on June 3, Bloomsbury made the ebook of my We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide available for $1 for a limited time. WANYE, as we call it, is the YA adaptation of Carol Anderson’s bestseller White Rage.” https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/we-are-not-yet-equal-9781547600786/
Many publishers are posting a variety of educational materials on their websites and social media. They have asked authors to contribute by providing videos of themselves performing read alouds or activities that can be used in virtual learning. The good news is that the entire kidlit community remains committed to spreading the word about books.
What happened to books that were released during the pandemic? For that I asked author Carole Lindstrom to share her experience with the launch of her book, We Are Water Protectors. Carole said that Macmillan came up with the wonderful teacher’s kit for Earth Day which included a list of resources and activities for children. They also arranged virtual story times and other virtual book events for promotion. Again, great news.
What can we do as authors? Most of us are becoming experts at online teaching, reading, and connecting with educators. Tonya Bolden said she has “participated in a couple of virtual initiatives around cancelled events but I’m really more focused—or trying to be!–on writing.” Author Melissa Stewart says that she is “contributing to more blogs that reach parents, but mostly, I’m taking the time freed up by cancelled conferences and school visits, to do more writing.” Sounds like there is a LOT of writing going on. Agents and editors: Be on the lookout for many amazing manuscripts coming your way soon!
What am I doing? Like most authors, I’ve done virtual author visits for schools. And even spoken for local National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) groups. But I’ve also taken this time to expand my STEM platform and have started a brand-new STEM podcast called Solve It! for Kids. (www.solveitforkids.com)
Are these efforts successful? It’s difficult to say. The amount of virtual activities available is so vast, it’s challenging for parents to cull through them all to find what they want/need. On the other hand, if virtual events are coordinated with educators, the chances of them being seen and used are much higher.
The takeaway should be that nonfiction is doing as well as can be expected and gaining steam. NOW is the time to support our fellow authors, and to keep focused on the people who need us more than ever— our readers.
Science Rocks! And so, do Jennifer Swanson’s books. She is the award-winning author of over 40 nonfiction books for children, mostly about science and technology. An accomplished and exciting speaker, Jennifer has presented at National NSTA conferences, the Highlights Foundation, the Atlanta Science Festival, the World Science Festival in NYC, and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival. www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com