Coronavirus sees 'Plague' book sales booming, but bookstores fight to write a new chapter

Barnes & Noble CEO sees "a responsibility to survive" as small shops battle shutdowns

As the coronavirus outbreak has pushed people across the country to self-quarantine, many are turning to reading to pass the time in isolation. For booksellers, however, they are bracing for the worst, whether it be from store closures or disruptions in their supply chains.

One bookseller taking a hit from the outbreak is the largest bookstore in the United States, Barnes & Noble. Chief executive James Daunt told FOX Business that the company is being hit hardest in areas most impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, including New York and Seattle.

Expressing concern for the health and security of his employees, Daunt said, "We have a responsibility to survive."

Smaller book stores may feel the same responsibility, but the economic pressures are making for an uncertain future. Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., announced that it was closing all five of its locations through at least March 31 and implementing some layoffs.

In New York City, McNally Jackson with three stores, took to Twitter to announce it was doing the same.

Capitol Hill Books, just a couple of rows of books away from where Congress is making decisions on potential stimulus packages to help small businesses like bookstores, is not waiting for any Federal help. It took to Twitter to make a unique offer to book lovers and keep its doors open despite the Washington D.C.'s social distance rules.

But Publisher's Weekly, a trade publication for the book industry, reported Tuesday that independent book stores have already laid off some 600 employees. Still, publishers and retailers are fighting to keep bookstores in business today and in the future. The American Booksellers Association has been lobbying publishers to support independent stores by offering discounts, free shipping to customers and removal of the cap on returns of unsold titles, among other measures. Other groups have been raising money to donate to hard-hit independent stores. The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which gives financial support to independent stores, released a statement offering potential assistance to stores that have been impacted by the epidemic and are unable to pay their rent or utility bills as a result of lost sales.

Albert Camus, "The Plague"

Ironically, a staple of bookshelves in book shops around the world, "The Plague" by Albert Camus, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. A regular on high school's summer reading lists for students, "The Plague," follows the inhabitants of Oran, an Algerian town that is sealed off by quarantine as it is ravaged by bubonic plague. Currently, Amazon lists the title as out of stock and will not be available until March 26.

Sales of the book have tripled in Italy, reported the literary magazine ActuaLitté, putting it in the country’s top 10 bestsellers, and have also risen sharply in France, according to the French books statistics website Edistat, peaking at more than 1,600 copies sold in the last week of January – an increase of around 300% on the previous year.

Another pandemic title in demand is the 1981 Dean Koontz novel "The Eye of Darkness," which is about a fictional virus called “Wuhan-400” which Koontz describes as “China’s most important and dangerous new biological weapon in a decade.” The book leapt into third place in Amazon's charts this week after a description of the illness was widely shared online and some in the media started to calling the current outbreak the "Wuhan flu."

Dean Koontz, "The Eyes of Darkness"

At Barnes & Noble, Daunt said he has not seen any heightened sales trend for pandemic books in their stores or online.

In the meantime, B&N is staying open in locations where local orders permit. “We are doing everything possible to keep our stores safe, clean, and accommodating for our customers and booksellers., a company spokesperson told FOX Business, "We plan to stay open as is possible to continue to provide books to the many people whose daily routines have been disrupted, including those who have kids home from school."


The public health crisis and the resulting economic fallout have hit after a period of relative calm and strength for the industry. In 2019, total sales across all categories rose 1.8 percent from 2018, reaching $14.8 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.

As this pandemic continues, like B&N, local bookstore owners vow to fight on. Kyle Burk, co-owner of Capitol Hill Books, summed up the feeling of most booksellers telling National Public Radio, "We have to do everything in our power to continue our operations and keep people employed and keep our business viable".