COVID-19 sickens the printed word

Francisco Castro

Francisco Castro

April 7, 2020 () –

During the coronavirus pandemic, the print community is struggling with multiple battles beyond dwindling revenue. Governments around the world have forced newspaper publishers to halt print editions on fears that paper could transmit the disease. Book publishers and sellers must reassess their operations, from delaying release dates to offering customers “care packages” while they stay home. Even greeting cards are bearing the brunt, as many life milestones are put on hold as people practice social distancing.

Paper Contagion Rumors

While publications such as Playboy and Time Out have recently announced a shift from print to digital amid coronavirus, there were some publishers that had no choice.

India, Syria, Morocco, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Yemen are some of the countries that have suspended the publication, printing and sale of newspapers amid unfounded concern that newspapers may be a source of contagion for coronavirus.

According to International News Media Association, there is no record or evidence that coronavirus is being transmitted through a print newspaper, magazine, letter or package. Furthermore, researchers note newspapers are even more sterile because of ink and the printing process they go through.

The Book Business

The long-word format is also being punished by the pandemic.

Book fairs across the world are cancelled due to social distancing restrictions and publishers like Simon & Schuster, Hachette Group and Penguin Random House are delaying the release of titles amid the pandemic. Skyhorse Publishing has temporarily laid off workers due to declining sales as it notes that the delay in publication of some titles to later in the year hurts its cash flow.

Nationwide, mandated business closures are also hurting retail book sales at stores that depend on walk-in traffic.

Bookstores everywhere are closed, including 400 of the 620 US Barnes & Noble sites that are sending thousands of workers into the unemployment lines.

The pandemic hits at a time when independent stores were just experiencing a resurgence, with print sales stabilizing and sales in many categories rising slightly.

But as it often happens, desperation has given rise to innovation. Shuttered bookstores are launching all kinds of programs to keep money coming in, including curbside pickup and even delivery by bike, while following the social distancing mandate.

Los Angeles-based romance bookseller Ripped Bodice launched “Build Your Own Care Package Program” and has so far shipped 330 packages with books, socks, greeting cards, bookmarks, pins and other small gifts. The bookseller even has a waiting list of over 800 customers. In the UK, Waterstones has reported a 400% jump in online sales amid the COVID-19 self-isolation, led by longer novels and classic fiction that people often don’t have time to read because of their hectic lives.

In hard times, many readers like to read classic works about surviving hardships. A bright spot amid the COVID-19 downturn is the 40% rise in sales of Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” which recounts an epidemic that hit Oran, Algeria, in 1849.

Meanwhile, school closures to prevent the virus spread have led to an increase in at-home reading, therefore stimulating the sales of activity workbooks and educational materials like flash cards, as parents try to keep homebound children busy and entertained. Scholastic’s workbooks were up 70% year-over-year in the week ending March 14.

Greeting cards amid the crisis

As local governments all over the nation ban large gatherings to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections, many celebrations of important milestones in life have to be cancelled.

In Hispanic communities throughout the U.S., none is more important than a milestone event called the quinceañera - the celebration of a daughter’s 15th birthday, mixing pageantry and religious ceremony much like a grand wedding. The mandated lockdowns put a sudden stop to these festivities that cost an average of US$21,781 per event. Each quinceañera takes months, if not years, in the making, with parents securing the venue, getting a tailored gown and, last but not least, printing elaborate invitation cards for hundreds of guests.

With cancellation of happy events like birthday parties, engagement parties and graduation ceremonies, there’s not much to greet. People are likewise forgoing greeting cards – at least until it is safe to get together for fun again.

And this hurts Hallmark, which has closed its retail stores amid COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, it is also temporarily shutting a greeting card plant in Lawrence, Kansas, a gift wrap plant in Leavenworth, Kansas, and a Liberty, Missouri, distribution center.

But the company is giving back to society in this crisis by launching The initiative asks people to register to receive a free three-card pack to send to friends, family, senior center or healthcare worker. The company would give away a total of 2 million cards.

Now people are waiting for the “shelter in place” orders to disappear, so that finally there’s something to celebrate again.

Francisco is the editor for Paper, Hygiene Products & Publishing content at Industry Intelligence, which can help YOU better address your own industry challenges. To arm yourself with the latest market intelligence, contact or call 310-553-0008 if you’re interested in receiving or sharing the IMPACT report with your colleagues or partners

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