How The Publishing World Is Staying Afloat During The Pandemic

Quarantine may be a golden opportunity to finally read "War and Peace" — but it's not an easy time for the book industry.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

As social distancing reportedly provides the perfect opportunity to, depending on one’s authorial aspirations, either write or finally read “King Lear,” book publishing may seem like the rare industry well-suited to a world altered by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve had friends and family who are completely outside of the publishing industry be like, ‘This must be a great time for book sales!’” Stephanie Wrobel, whose debut novel “Darling Rose Gold” came out on March 5, said wryly. “I have to be the one to burst the bubble.”

In practice, nothing is quite so simple — and the publishing industry, like nearly every other, is struggling. Last month, not long after scooping up Woody Allen’s controversial memoir, Skyhorse Publishing laid off 30% of its staff. Macmillan Publishers shut down an imprint, instituted salary reductions and laid off a number of employees. Indie bookstores like Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, and McNally Jackson in New York City have also laid off staff, though Powell’s later rehired salespeople to ship online orders.

The inexpert among us are getting a crash course right now in supply chains and revenue streams. Despite the current demand for hospital resources and news media, for example, both industries are facing a financial crunch thanks to lost elective procedures and ad revenue, respectively. And though a book may begin and end as a solitary experience, from a writer’s mind to a reader’s hands, the publishing industry is an ecosystem vulnerable to the pandemic just like so many others, one threaded together by bookstores, festivals, warehouses, delivery trucks and, of course, customers with money to spend.

The Events

When Kevin Nguyen’s debut novel “New Waves,” a chronicle of grief and complicated friendship set amid tech startup culture, came out this spring, he marked the occasion with a March 10 launch event at Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic. The joyful, long-awaited occasion slid in just under the wire; three days later, the bookstore canceled all remaining March events. The rest of his planned tour — including an event at McNally Jackson and a few West Coast dates — was evaporating; Nguyen simply felt lucky to have had that one night.

“I had this nice, wonderful event. Hua Hsu was the interlocutor. My friends were there and we all went to a bar afterwards,” he said. “For a lot of us, that was the last time we went out before quarantine.”

A bustling Books Are Magic on its opening day in April 2017. Three years later, the store would be closed for browsing due to the pandemic.
A bustling Books Are Magic on its opening day in April 2017. Three years later, the store would be closed for browsing due to the pandemic.

For other authors, with release dates falling amid lockdowns, none of the in-person parties and readings are coming to fruition. Travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders have brought tours, parties and festival appearances to an abrupt halt, leaving authors, particularly less-established ones, scrambling to sell their books.

Wrobel, who lives in the U.K., got to have her launch event at Waterstones, but her North American tour — five cities in the U.S., media appearances in Canada — was canceled. Others, with later spring release dates, saw their entire calendars cleared of in-person events. Authors Laura Hankin, Ilana Masad and Jessica Rotondi all had launch events planned at the storied New York City bookstore The Strand, which were abruptly canceled. (Full disclosure: Hankin is a friend and Rotondi a former HuffPost colleague.) Hankin and Rotondi had tours planned with their publishers, as well, and events at other bookstores, festivals and Hankin’s 10th college reunion. Because Hankin’s dark satire of wealthy New York moms, “Happy and You Know It,” grew out of her experiences as a playgroup musician, she said, “We talked about me going around to playgroups and doing little ‘mommy and me’ music-slash-book-club things.”

The book tour has been dwindling since well before the pandemic. Glitzy launch parties and multicity trips cost money, and it’s been a while since book publishers had a lot of money to throw around.

It’s difficult to quantify lost sales from a canceled tour. Most readings, even successful ones, don’t drive many actual sales. Nguyen noted that his launch event sold around 50 copies of “New Waves.” “That’s great,” he said. “On the flip side, 50 books is just not a ton of books.”

The emotional and psychological value of touring to authors, on the other hand, has held through the years. After months and years spent drafting and reworking alone, many writers revel in the community found at tour events, not to mention the opportunity to speak with readers about their work. “Refilling the tank is a huge part of it,” Hankin said. “It is a lovely reward at the end of the process, for a writer.”

Rotondi, who started working on her family history “What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers” a decade ago, had a 12-city tour planned for the long-labored-over book. “My first job in New York City when I moved here at 21 was actually in book publicity, and my absolute favorite part of the job was planning these author tours,” Rotondi remembered. “I could barely afford a cup of coffee, but I would go to author readings almost every single night. It made me feel so connected to these authors I had worshipped as a kid growing up in a small town.”

These connections aren’t just indulgences, though. Publishers still gamble on tours getting books on shelves and spreading word-of-mouth among booksellers and influential readers.

“An in-person event not only sells books, but the bookstore orders books, and that is revenue for the author, for the house, for everybody,” said Megan Fishmann, vice president, associate publisher and head of publicity at Catapult, Counterpoint and Soft Skull presses.

“When you serve a community, when you serve any kind of bookstore, the effect of it is outsized and hard to measure. You’re hitting the most voracious readers in the community, the people who are most likely to really advocate for a book.”

- Author Kevin Nguyen

Attendees may see other books they’d like to read while there, Hankin said, or the event may capture a “browser in the bookstore who has not heard of this book, but now [they] see that there’s an event, so [they’re] going to stop and listen.”

“When you serve a community, when you serve any kind of bookstore, the effect of it is outsized and hard to measure,” Nguyen said. “You’re hitting the most voracious readers in the community, the people who are most likely to really advocate for a book.” Even if a significant number of copies aren’t sold at an event, “the influence is still really important. Losing those things is going to be huge, especially for literary fiction I think.”

Hankin noted that an author event may get booksellers interested in your title, which can have a long-tail effect. “If the booksellers still really like you and read the book because you’re coming to the store,” she said, “then maybe they’re handselling it to people at the store for weeks on end.”

The Stores

A book isn’t a roll of toilet paper. There’s no shortage of them, and in a pinch, a digital copy will do for many readers. But making that purchase has become more complicated amid the pandemic, as bookstores across the country have been deemed inessential businesses and shut down by lockdown orders. Though many states have begun to reopen, there’s no guarantee that restrictions won’t be tightened again if infection rates spike — which epidemiologists project is likely to happen.

With many bookstores shuttered, there’s also a ripple effect on book browsing: Readers won’t happen to see an intriguing new novel or essay collection sitting on a curated table as they head toward the cash register, and they won’t overhear a bookseller recommending a favorite new release while browsing the shelves. For indie bookstores, this could be devastating; for the books they sell, it may spell trouble. Replacing the discoverability quotient of bookstores has been a concern since the rise of online book shopping; it’s difficult to replicate the browsing experience of a brick-and-mortar store staffed with knowledgeable, enthusiastic booksellers. Readers may rely more heavily on recommendations from friends, bestseller lists, or (admittedly flawed) online tools like Amazon’s Goodreads.

A pedestrian passes the closed doors of The Strand, an indie bookstore in New York City. A sign in the window advertises "everything you need to turn your home into your happy place."
A pedestrian passes the closed doors of The Strand, an indie bookstore in New York City. A sign in the window advertises "everything you need to turn your home into your happy place."
John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

Some in the industry, nettled by the “inessential” label and the financial blow to small bookstores, have pushed back on the designation. Publishers Weekly launched a social media campaign, #BooksAreEssential, to advocate for the value of books and bookstores even amid the pandemic.

And yes, books have value — but essential may be pushing it, especially when weighed against worker lives. Every open workplace is a workplace where employees risk infection, which means not only risking human death and suffering, but also supply chain breakdowns. Outbreaks are already affecting workers in essential workplaces, like meatpacking plants, and though not all packing and shipping jobs expose workers to the same level of risk, the dangers also cannot be discounted.

For now, publishers, like many other retailers, are experiencing slight delays due to safety precautions at their distribution centers. “Like other companies, our supply chain has been impacted, but we are still fulfilling demand and shipping physical books,” said Claire Von Schilling, director of corporate communications for Penguin Random House. Von Schilling credits the work of “experienced, diligent colleagues in our distribution centers” for getting books to retailers quickly, even while implementing precautionary measures like social distancing within the workplace. Fishmann also noted that safety precautions had created minor, manageable delays for Catapult, Counterpoint and Soft Skull book deliveries.

Amazon began its takeover of web commerce with books, and it’s long had a stranglehold on online book sales. But amid coronavirus-fueled floods of orders for groceries, medical supplies and other essential items, Amazon took the unusual step of deprioritizing book orders. Shipments of essayist Michael Arceneaux’s latest book, “I Don’t Want to Die Poor,” were delayed three weeks, he told HuffPost. Furthermore, employees recently called for a customer boycott of the site in support of their demands for better working conditions — like sanitization, PPE and sick leave — and hazard pay.

Amazon employees protest inadequate health and safety measures amid the coronavirus pandemic at the company's Staten Island distribution facility on March 30.
Amazon employees protest inadequate health and safety measures amid the coronavirus pandemic at the company's Staten Island distribution facility on March 30.
Spencer Platt via Getty Images

The pandemic has made me realize how fragile the industry is: How the supply chain is not nearly robust enough and how vulnerable indie bookstores (or really any retailer that’s not Amazon or Walmart) can be,” Maris Kreizman, a writer, critic and host of literary podcast “The Maris Review,” told HuffPost in an email. “And that booksellers at individual stores should not have to rely on GoFundMes to make any income at all when their employers shut down.”

Because of these hurdles, not to mention widespread library closures, other book-buying avenues have taken on a new importance.

Our sales team was able to get ‘Rose Gold’ into Target, and Target has been able to stay open, because it has groceries and is an essential store,” Wrobel said. “To be able to have the books in those physical stores, I think the importance can’t be understated at this point.”

Indie bookstores that once did negligible web sales have converted into primarily online businesses for the time being, shipping out orders from behind closed doors. Another option is Bookshop, an online bookstore launched just weeks before the pandemic hit. Positioned as a more ethical alternative to Amazon, Bookshop shares proceeds with indie bookstores, either by allowing customers to select a local partner store to receive the full profit or by directing proceeds into a pooled fund for indie shops.

The Press

Not all book promotion happens in stores, of course. Publishers also depend on authors making appearances on TV and radio shows; now, they’re facing stiff competition for those slots. A new book is more of a segment filler than a high-priority item for these programs, so they’re always easy to bump. Publishers were already expecting a tough fall, as presidential elections tend to eat up a huge amount of airtime. Now there’s wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage, too. “Press is very hard to get,” Nguyen said. “Especially as coronavirus was escalating, it was so easy to get bumped for a coronavirus story.”

Arceneaux, whose second book was released on April 7, remembered promoting his first book as a grueling effort and expected another slog this time around. “Leading even into the pre-pandemic, I was really growing anxious, frankly. And I had concerns about media placements,” he said. As a Black, gay writer, he said, he knew the extra hurdles he faced in getting interview slots on shows in a white-dominated, heteronormative media ecosystem. “And then when the pandemic happened, I was like, aw, hell.”

Digital and print media, already in dire economic straits, have been clobbered by a loss of ad sales due to the pandemic. Still, between quarantine reading round-ups, reporting on authors and publishers coping with the altered economy, and the usual diet of reviews, interviews, profiles and listicles, many new books are finding coverage.

“When it became clear to me that all IRL book tours and parties and events would be canceled due to COVID, I asked Lit Hub [...] if I could host a video chat with authors who’d been affected,” Kreizman, whose podcast airs on LitHub. She’s recorded Zoom calls with 25 authors, offering some slight consolation for the loss of in-person talks. “And it also prevents me from having to write too many lists about quarantine reads.” (This hints at another issue authors may face: endless roundups of perfect reads for sheltering in place may begin to bore both journalists and their audience.)

“I feel media has never been more receptive to us,” Fishmann said. “My only fear,” she went on, “are the layoffs in media companies ... We have to keep supporting these journalists and these booksellers, because these are the people who are so essential to part of our publishing world.” With massive waves of layoffs continuing to hit the news media, this fear is very real.

Masad, whose novel “All My Mother’s Lovers” comes out May 26, has seen the loss of newsroom resources playing out in her work as a freelance culture writer. “Culture is often one of the first things to go in these outlets,” Masad said. “It’s seen as somehow fluffy.”

In her experience, she told HuffPost, freelance assignments to cover books have fallen off a cliff, with budgets getting frozen or reallocated to other areas. “I’ve either gotten, suddenly, no responses from places that have responded in the past, or been told straight-out, ‘Try me in two or three months when maybe we will be unfreezing the budget, we’ll have to see,’ or been told ‘I’m full up until October, maybe November,’” she said. She’s noticed some editors soliciting pitches on other forms of culture — TV, celebrities — but “book coverage in general has been on the chopping block year after year after year after year.”

The Readers

Then there are the murkier, intangible factors that may affect book-buying choices. Just because people are being asked to stay home doesn’t mean they’re relaxing with books. Many are now juggling ceaseless child care with full-time jobs or are slammed with emergency shifts at work. Others may simply not have the concentration to read; a recent Vox article suggested that the overwhelming anxiety generated by living through a pandemic might leave would-be readers too distracted to finish a book.

“What I want right now are books that have some substance but are fun and move quickly and draw you in right away and are funny and at the end of it make me feel a bit better about the world.”

- Author Laura Hankin

For many readers, these factors may change their habits; perhaps for some it seems like the perfect time to finally read “War and Peace,” and perhaps others can only concentrate on comforting light reads. Though we may be looking at a summer without beach vacations, “I think beach reads are more important than ever,” Hankin said. “What I want right now are books that have some substance but are fun and move quickly and draw you in right away and are funny and at the end of it make me feel a bit better about the world.”

With fewer opportunities to stumble across new books, readers looking to fill the hours might also rely on old favorites or established bestsellers. And not just the classics. U.K. bookstore chain Waterstones reported a spike in demand for canonical works, but also for hefty hits from recent years, like Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.” While consistent blockbusters — like James Patterson, whose latest book popped up on the bestseller list this month — may be able to depend on their fanbase continuing to seek out the latest titles, debuts and other less-established writers face an uphill climb even steeper than usual to make themselves known to new readers.

Most significant, perhaps, will be a problem that isn’t related to the intricacies of the publishing world at all: With the economy at a standstill, people may not have money to spend on leisure.

“Hypothetically the barriers aren’t much greater than they were before,” Nguyen said. “But at the same time we have some crazy unemployment numbers now. The greater impact will be ... people have less disposable income. The last thing they’re going to do when they’re looking for a job is buy a hardcover book.”

There’s reason for hope. Book sales were fairly resilient during the Great Recession of a decade ago, perhaps because they offer a cheaper form of entertainment than a bustling nightlife or a cable subscription. Genres like cookbooks and how-to guides are also poised to capitalize on Americans looking to learn new skills to save money, find a new job, or simply stay busy. Then again, the current economic crisis, which already has resulted in 36 million new unemployment claims in the U.S., looks likely to wreak far more hardship than the last one.

Nor will it ever be entirely clear whether a given author can attribute lower-than-hoped sales to the pandemic. “There have to be missed opportunities, if most of the places your book can be sold are shut down, but in terms of concrete numbers it’s hard to say,” Wrobel said.

The impact will likely be distributed unevenly. Arceneaux pointed out that his primary audience is being hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. “Frankly, a lot of Black people are dying,” he said. “Some of my friends have literally already lost their jobs [...] in soul-crushing ways.” There’s a grim timeliness to his latest book, which he describes as being “very much about actual economic anxiety,” as the country spirals into another catastrophe that will disproportionately affect the health and finances of Black people.

The New Approaches

Some of the authors HuffPost spoke to were hesitant to even discuss sales, a seemingly frivolous concern next to the illness and death being caused by the pandemic. For Arceneaux, sales are not more important than his audience’s dire straits, but neither are they frivolous. “It’s really hard to just ask people to buy stuff when you know they’re suffering,” he told HuffPost, “but at the same time, this is my livelihood.”

So authors, bookstores and publishers are hustling harder than ever. Arceneaux appeared remotely on radio shows and podcasts like “Keep It!” and he posted streaming teasers for the book and financial advice on Instagram. Hankin’s planned visits to “mommy and me” groups were relocated to Instagram as well: A few weeks ago, she began a Wednesday live show for parents trapped at home with young kids.

Authors have banded together to leverage already-powerful platforms for bookselling, like Instagram, which is home to numerous book influencers with high follower counts. “Instagram is basically a flea market with porn and fitness tips and needless brags,” Arceneaux said, “but it sells a lot of books.” Hankin joined an email group of dozens of authors. At first, it was simply a space for introductions and emotional support, she said, but it soon became a space for strategizing giveaways and other forms of joint promotion. Authors Jenna Blum and Caroline Leavitt launched an initiative, A Mighty Blaze, to put together a calendar of upcoming releases and help authors promote them on social media.

Some literary events and festivals have gone digital for the time being rather than simply cancel or postpone for an uncertain future. Indie bookstores and literary organizations have been hosting Zoom events to replace their in-person ones; one night Rotondi joined Les Bleus, a New York literary salon, for a reading with several other authors.

“We were all in our bedrooms, a lot of us were in our pajamas. I used to love the inside look into an author’s life in formal readings, but now that we’re at home we get this added voyeuristic element,” she said. “It feels almost that much more personal.”

Masad only had a couple events planned in the before times. Increasingly, she noted, authors are asked to subsidize their own travel, and as a freelancer and debut writer, she couldn’t afford it. Now she’s also booked several virtual events, including Les Bleus and Kreizman’s Zoom series. “For me, ironically, I suddenly feel like I had a tour where I didn’t before,” she said.

Fishmann, whose triumvirate of presses, like other indies, doesn’t have quite the same financial resources at its disposal as the big five publishers, agreed that remote events offer more accessibility. “I feel like everyone is on the same playing level for the first time,” she said.

Even at the big five publishing houses, the new approaches may not look all bad. Jen Monroe, a senior editor at Berkley who edited Hankin’s novel, told HuffPost she was inspired by how quickly PRH’s publicity and marketing teams found new and creative ways to promote their titles online, via Instagram and YouTube ― ways that seem “not only exciting but sustainable.”

It remains to be seen whether a Zoom party can be as effective at building up morale, and sales, as in-person events. But given the accessibility, both financial and otherwise, that digital events offer, it’s likely that they’ll remain an appealing option even once lockdowns lift.

The Future

For the time being, the publishers seem to be keeping their heads above water as every corner of the industry struggles to keep moving books. While Amazon, long a bête noire of the traditional publishing industry, has floundered, it has left space for its upstart competitor Bookshop to fill the void, shipping online orders to readers and helping indie stores staunch the bleeding from prolonged closures. Founder and CEO Andy Hunter, also the publisher of Catapult, Counterpoint and Soft Skull, as well as a co-founder of LitHub and Electric Lit, expected to take three years to garner even 1% of Amazon’s sales, he told CNBC in April. “Instead,” he said, “it took 11 weeks.”

According to Publishers Weekly reports, retail sales of print books have hardly collapsed. Adult fiction has continued to sell fairly steadily, and sales are bolstered for the time being by surges in demand for children’s and YA nonfiction. Thanks for that are undoubtedly due to school closures, which have left parents suddenly in charge of providing, or at least heavily supplementing, their children’s educational needs at home: The current top-selling work of juvenile nonfiction is “My First Learn-to-Write Workbook.” Simultaneously, of course, publishers have been facing a massive drop in demand for K-12 educational materials from schools. Overall, Publishers Weekly reported an 8.9% decrease in publishing sales in March, as the pandemic was just beginning to ravage the U.S.

Some publishers have moved publishing dates for some upcoming releases, perhaps in part to give titles a chance at entering a more normal market later in the summer or fall. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which publishes literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, shifted a number of its spring and early summer titles to later in the summer. Skyhorse’s CEO attributed its layoffs in part to a loss of immediate sales from books that the publisher decided to delay until later in the year. Others are gambling on sticking with their planned schedule and making the best of the current market.

“We have not moved our pub dates [due to the pandemic],” Fishmann said. Instead, she’s focused on finding ways to convince readers to buy books and support indie bookstores right now.

Besides, there’s no guarantee that the situation will improve, or even hold steady, by the end of the year. As the pandemic stretches on, regardless of whether states continue to pursue reopening policies in the coming months, the book business will likely suffer from the same economic pressures as other industries: Closed stores, plummeting income among its customers, and possible illness among workers whose jobs cannot be done remotely.

Publishers, shops and writers can only keep scrabbling for purchase in the market the best ways they can. They’re hoping, like everyone else, for a timely end to this crisis — and trying to tap into the eternal human longing for stories, a need which has never been quenched entirely by catastrophic times.

“My grandfather was a prison of war in Stalag-17 for almost three years,” Rotondi said toward the end of our conversation. “He read from a small book almost every single night and defied curfew to do it, because he wanted to give people around him hope. Years later, when my mom was undergoing chemo she read that same book, and it really gave her so much hope.”

Reading, she said, has gotten generations of her family through difficult times; now, participating in Zoom readings is getting her through this one. “Being read to,” she added, “there’s nothing like it.”

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