How Chronicle Books survived the pandemic’s mad rush


The literary world has weathered the pandemic in a remarkable way. As the industry as a whole benefited from online book orders and sheltered in-place readers, booksellers lost the chance of book tours and lectures, live author appearances, and interactive commerce. and practice which is their specialty.

People who shop online didn’t respond to in-house experts but to what they saw: limited search results containing new books based on algorithms, or renowned authors and bestselling titles suggested by retailers because books were already a safe bet. NPD BookScan reveals that of the Top 10 Fiction Sellers in 2020, nine were written by established bestselling authors. Meanwhile, data from the US Census Bureau shows that bookstore sales have fallen nearly 30% during the same period.

Continue the downward tilt: Booksellers across the country recognize that people who attend virtual author events often do not purchase the book from their physical bookstores. While before the pandemic, a popular author’s visit could result in the sale of 150 copies, Zoom events averaged only 15-20 sales. Another statistic from NPD BookScan speaks to early and lesser-known writers and comes with grim austerity: 98% of frontline books published by publishers in 2020 sold less than 5,000 copies.

Before the entire portrait plunges a book lover into a muddy puddle of despair, a golden glow: According to the Association of American Publishers, after ten years of stagnant returns, publishers’ revenues in the United States have increased by nearly 10% in 2020 to reach 8.6 billion dollars.

Chronicle Books shone like a jewel in the industry’s precarious crown. The San Francisco publisher, founded in 1967, publishes illustrated non-fiction books appreciated for their clean design, attention to detail, and expansive series addressing issues such as sustainability, craftsmanship, and original voices. Publishing in categories such as art, food, popular culture, lifestyle and wellness, and children’s books, Chronicle has expanded to include gifts, games, puzzles, stationery, and other complimentary products ( a wise initiative from 1993). Products developed in collaboration with Lego and other companies have proven to be a valuable source of income.

The Chronicle Books building in SF.

“We are now attracting more people into the organization at all levels who do not have direct publishing experience,” Tyrrell Mahoney, president of Chronicle Books, said in a recent interview. We recognize as a company that we were and we lack as many voices and diverse experiences as we should have. We didn’t have the goal that we have now: we have traditionally focused on recruiting people with completely direct experience in publishing. ”

Mahoney is a longtime San Francisco resident. Appointed to her current position in January 2017, she has been Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Business Development since 2007. Mahoney rose through the ranks at Chronicle and joined him in 1996 as a sales and marketing associate. Prior to that, Tyrrell was the broadcast director of Mother Jones magazine. She graduated from Boston University with a BA in English.

I ask Mahoney about the dangers and opportunities resulting from the pandemic. Speaking of recruiting new hires and the now too familiar remote or hybrid workforce, she says, “We can now diversify our hires. COVID means it doesn’t have to be done just in San Francisco or New York. This means we can diversify and recruit across the United States. “

Demonstrating the company’s traditionally progressive approach to publishing, Chronicle’s inventory fits perfectly when non-fiction books on politics and social injustice, race and racism, cuisine and gardening, and children’s books for schooling for housebound children were the best sellers of most publishers in 2020.

A recent video from Chronicle Books

Mahoney also talks about current and future initiatives involving books associated with products in retail stores – cookbooks placed in high-end housewares stores, flower-themed journals at florists, and more. – and range extensions involving partnerships or acquisitions of toys and game manufacturers. (Last year, Chronicle announced the acquisition of three Wild + Wolf signature games and the creation of a subsidiary, Chronicle Books Limited, to lead and develop the sales and distribution program.)

“It’s true that we were one of the first to look at books differently. We understood early on that books are as much a gift for others as they are for yourself. By putting them in a retail store, serendipity was there for the readers and for the stores as it kept their customers engaged and interested. We always leverage our content to determine where the interest lies, ”she says.

As I take a journey through an eclectic virtual gift box of current items, I find strengths: Storyteller by Dolly Parton (which sold 200,000 copies); From crook to cook by Snoop Dogg (originally released in 2018 and sold 205,000 in 2020); Trumpty Dumpty wanted a crown by John Lithgow; We have become jaguars; Star Wars: Sithmas of a Vader Family; Arte Popular: Rex May Collection of Mexican Folk Art: Pilates pajamas; Quilts from Gee’s Bend; I know it’s true: Stephen Curry.

Tyrell Mahoney. Photo by Natasha Claro

When a Chronicle resonates in the market, additive content is an obvious boost. “Recognizing this has helped us build engagement and sales,” says Mahoney. The Construction Book series (developed from the 2011 bestselling book by author Sherri Duskey Rinker, Good night, good night, construction site) has now grown into a large franchise with 15 different formats. This allowed us to bring a stronger presence in the stores.

When I ask if Chronicle plans to turn the corner after the pandemic and start making its own line of gardening tools or kitchen utensils, or creating videos or TV shows, Mahoney’s response is unequivocal. . “We do not go into the manufacture of products other than paper, but we have developed products with partners. In some cases, the effort has not matched the core business of gifts and books on paper. We distribute for seven other publishers and they have launched new products with mixed success.

Has Chronicle ever wandered into “mixed success” or even “not going to happen” territory? Certainly. “We made ceramics, trays or small key rings and pins. They haven’t done well enough to continue. Some things don’t work on their own. They are too light: a tray is only an object, but a book has a writing beyond the visual. Where we shine and perform is with the combination of content and visual.

Acknowledging the times this shine was cast into the shadows – the 2007 economic downturn leading to Borders’ liquidation in 2011 – Mahoney said the loss of Borders had an impact on the waiting lists of all publishers . Speaking of Amazon, the big online monster that appeared in 2007 and continues to disrupt the industry, she says, “Amazon was not as big as it is today, so the growth of this channel in years since 2007 has improved book sales overall as an industry. For us, as a publisher with a diverse retail base, we were able to use that base to bolster what we were losing through other distribution channels.

A selection of Chronicle offers.

Frontlists (new books) in 2020 continued to be impacted by Amazon, but also by social media, the pandemic and other forces. “The media outside of the current events in 2020 were taking so much of people’s time and attention that the purchase of physical books has fallen in priority. But the industry has always done well overall because people read and buy e-books, audiobooks, and shop online. Unfortunately, publishers need healthy frontlists because these books fuel future backlists.

This is one of the reasons Chronicle is investing in more visual merchandising. “What we won’t do as much is travel and meet booksellers. How do you replace that? We ask how do consumers look for new books or freebies? We’re doing more to make sure people understand our product lines.

This means that the online content on the company’s website includes enhanced visuals (photography and video) showing the book in different contexts or demonstrating with video or animation how a game is played or a chef’s dish is prepared. . “We do things that help realize this phrase that we hear that is common to physical books: ‘I knew it was a Chronicle when I picked it up. “