COVID-19 and The Publishing Industry, Part 1: A Year in Review, Consumer Trends & Behaviors

March 19, 2021
Ingram Staff
COVID-19 and The Publishing Industry, Part 1: A Year in Review, Consumer Trends & Behaviors

How the pandemic changed the way books are discovered and purchased.

Over the past year, the brick-and-mortar bookstores were faced with many issues, from overall supply chain challenges, to curtailed in-person shopping. There was a major pivot to buying print and ebooks online.

How do you capitalize on this shift to online sales and position your books for continued success? In this two-part blog series, we’ll discuss what has happened over the past year, as well as what's happening in the industry today through the lens of digital book marketing and consumer insights. We’ll cover popular trends with consumers and readers, as well as 10 tips that are critical in today's online book selling environment.

Consumer Trends & Behaviors

With the massive shift to online book sales over the past year, popular trends with consumers and readers have changed the book industry as we know it. We've discovered what people are doing online, how that’s changing, and how it’s affecting books.

Search, Social & Video are Omnipresent

Let us pull the camera back and take a look at what consumers are up to right now when it comes to search, social, and video. They're ubiquitous at this point – according to an article published by We Are Social and Hootsuite on 2021 Digital Insights, between 92-97% of people in the United States with an internet connection are using these services.

Source: We Are Social, Digital 2021: The Latest Insights into the “State of Digital”

While search and social have always been high, they've never been at these levels. One key takeaway here is these are a lot of new people using these platforms, largely due to the pandemic and generational shifts, as well as necessity due to lockdowns and shelter in place, etc. It's incremental growth on these platforms - new consumers doing different things than they've done in the past.

eCommerce is Booming

This growth also includes eCommerce. As consumers are spending more time online, it’s no surprise that more are shopping online. As of January 2021, over 80% of all people in the U.S. with an internet connection purchased something online in the past month. It’s also reported that of those individuals, 95% are researching products online and 50% have used a mobile device to buy.

Source: We Are Social, Digital 2021: The Latest Insights into the “State of Digital”

This level of eCommerce usage is truly unprecedented and is a dramatic change in consumer behavior.

Amazon Lost Some eCommerce Share

Of the major three consumer eCommerce players in the U.S. who have sizeable physical book presences - Target, Walmart and Amazon - Amazon made the largest overall gain in sales, but they did lose some share of overall ecommerce (source: Social Media Today, eCommerce Statistics & Trends 2020).

Walmart is actually larger than Amazon in terms of overall retail and their physical footprint, but historically Walmart's online efforts have been a bit lagging. However, in Q2 2020 we saw Walmart’s digital sales up 97%, and Target’s digital sales up 195%, and we saw this in book sales too, taking share away from Amazon.

Rise in “Values-Based Shopping” Decisions

Another 2020 trend is referred to as “values-based shopping”, meaning we’re increasingly seeing socially conscious buyers and consumers report they'll pay more attention to a brand’s values, hiring and employment practices, environmental impacts and community impacts.

For example, a recent Deloitte survey found 80% of consumers would be willing to pay more if a brand raised its prices to be environmentally and socially responsible or paid higher wages to its employees. Facebook IQ also showed 29% of U.S. adults report encouraging others to buy a product based on the brand’s values or business practices.

These brands include popular names like Patagonia, REI, Walmart and Target, but also think of “brands” as a publishing house, an author, a book series, the founders of publishing companies, etc. What we stand for as companies seems to matter more to consumers than ever before.

Brand & Product Discovery and Research

According to We Are Social’s 2021 Digital Insights, search, social and retail are the preferred platforms where consumers look for brands online.

Source: We Are Social, Digital 2021: The Latest Insights into the “State of Digital”

Consumer reviews have also become increasingly important, showing to influence 42% of people discovering brands or actively performing research online – brands again meaning publishers, authors, titles, book series, etc. As more people are online and using the internet, they're looking in more and different ways for things.

Factors that Influence Online Purchase

As people shift their behavior and begin to buy more online, it’s important to take a look at what really matters to them and what’s most influential.

Some of the things that are most influential are things that we don't have a tremendous amount of control over as publishers, like:

-       Lowest Price for Item -  we can price competitively, but the discount is often up to the retailer.

-       Free Shipping & Fast Delivery – again, often up to the retailer.

-       Customer Item Reviews

-       Cross-Store Price Comparison

However, there are some we do have control over, like:

-       Sale, Discount or Promo Codes

-       Product Availability - ensuring that everything is out there, fully available and ready to be shipped.

-       Product Specs - your metadata, making sure consumers can find everything they need to know about your products so they can make a buying decision.

Sustained Behavioral Changes

What happens when the pandemic ends? What might a post-pandemic world look like? There is no crystal ball, but what we have witnessed is that consumers have changed their purchasing behaviors, and when consumers change behaviors it can be hard to change them back.

According to consumer surveys on this Shopify report, nearly half of those surveyed indicate they will continue to shop online more frequently than prior to the pandemic. These behavioral changes are likely to be sustained, so the importance of online channels suddenly growing in March/April of 2020 is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels. These behaviors may be here to stay.

What About Books?

When the pandemic hit, books, music and video shifted more dramatically to online channels than any other consumer product category - people immediately started buying books online, and it jumped heavily.

According to a study from McKinsey and Company, The Great Consumer Shift, they predict an 11% migration to the online channel for book purchasing in the future. Therefore, online channels continue to become more important - not only do consumers say that they're going to sustain this behavior, but analysts like those at McKinsey think it's actually going to increase.

-       "Books" Searches with Google & Amazon -  Consumer behavior also shows the shift. Using a platform like Keyword Tool we can see that book-related search in Amazon and Google is up over 50% in the last 12 months.

-       Readers are Finding Books Everywhere – A recent study done by the Panorama Project shows the method of book discovery and the places books are discovered. Some of these methods are not surprising like “recommendation from a friend”, but there are new places of discovery such as “browsing online libraries” (Overdrive, Libby, Hoopla, etc.) and ”browsing online bookstores” that shows the shifting preference to online discovery.

-       2020: A Big Year for Book Sales - Using data from NPD BookScan we know that 2020 was a growth year for book sales, showing unit sales across the industry have never been higher. In fact, it was the largest year we’ve seen in terms of units sold in the last 15 years! At the moment, it feels like this is going to continue.

-       A More Diverse Book Marketplace - In any search traffic data we observe leading to websites, we’re seeing channel and model diversity likely opening up new markets. The market is more varied than it's ever been before in terms of channels and how people are finding, consuming and buying books.

-       Rise of Backlist - Data from NPD BookScan also shows backlist sales are up as a percentage of overall sales - going from 63% of overall sales to 67% in terms of units, 2019 versus 2020. We can attribute this to the rise of online shopping, as when shopping online for books there's no front of store, no front table, and no end caps or books in the windows. All the ways of traditionally marketing frontlist titles in stores is no longer an influence on purchasing decisions.

In summary, consumers are buying multiple formats, book sales are going up, people are spending more time on social platforms and shopping more online. Now that you know the trends and behaviors we’ve observed and compiled, check out part two of this blog series and discover the top ten ways to achieve success in this new online bookselling environment.

Ingram’s Digital Solutions

Ensure your titles are in the right formats and set up for the best online discovery and sales.

Digital Distribution

Guarantee your ebooks and audiobooks are up-to-date, accessible, and optimized for sale. Convert titles into industry-standard digital formats so they are available to the right distribution channels.

Online Discoverability & Sales

Increase the discoverability and sales potential of your titles with tools like previews, metadata improvement and targeting verified readers. Ensure your books are working at full capacity to get discovered online and bought.

COVID-19 and The Publishing Industry, Part 1: A Year in Review, Consumer Trends & Behaviors
Ingram Staff

Ingram Staff

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