Are there any positives to publishing in a pandemic?

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by Susan Allott, The Strand Magazine

It’s easy, at first glance, to find silver linings in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Writing from inner London, I can report that the sun is shining, there are no planes in the sky; I can take my daily walk down the centre of the road if I choose to, such is the lack of traffic. The only sound from my open kitchen window is birdsong and a distant lawnmower. It feels like someone took a look at the state of our planet and pressed pause, forcing us to consider what we truly value, what we might do differently if we want to survive. But the economy doesn’t want us to pause. It wants us to adapt quickly, to change the way we live and work, to make decisions with long-term repercussions in the midst of a crisis. As a writer, and a book lover, I’m doing my best to be hopeful. What are the silver linings for those of us publishing in a pandemic? And will we have regrets when we press play again?

For me, as a debut author, the first signs of damage came in the form of cancelled launch events and my novel showing as unavailable on Amazon, as essential items were prioritized over books. For a short time I dared to hope that all was not lost, as book sales rallied. On 3rd April, Kiera O’Brien wrote in The Bookseller that in the week ending 22nd March, one week before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the lockdown, UK fiction sales rose 32%. There were similar patterns evident in the US, with Jim Milliot writing in Publisher’s Weekly (April 10) that unit sales of print books rose 6.9% in the last week of the quarter over the previous week. But of course it couldn’t last. Lockdown led to bookshops and libraries closing, and distribution channels became slow at best. Demand for books was higher than ever as weeks, perhaps months of isolation beckoned. People wanted stories to see them through difficult times, and yet those much-wanted books were sitting in warehouses or in the back-rooms of bookshops.

The solution to all this, clearly, is to meet the huge demand for books with digital editions. Despite a lack of reliable data, industry spokespeople are confirming that both e-book and audio sales have seen a significant boost. Marketing teams in publishing houses around the world have swiftly directed all their efforts towards digital products and online sales. Quoted in the Library Journal (April 13), Maureen McMahon (Kaplan Publishing) said, “About five minutes ago, we thought e-books were boring and that they had plateaued. Now they’re our heroes.”

Digital-first publishers, and those already structured to push digital formats, have been the first to see the benefits of this change. Tracy Buchanan, who recently moved over to the Amazon imprint Lake Union, was one of nine new entries to enter the Bookstat e-book top 10 for the week ending 4th April, with her thriller Wall of Silence. She told me that the switch to Lake Union had been a calculated one due to her already strong digital sales, but that the pandemic had accelerated sales beyond expectations. Buchanan is not the only author with a digital imprint to find her book shooting unexpectedly up the charts. Readers are forming new habits, looking online for books with the discoverability tools these searches provide.

I am of course glad that e-book and audio editions might rescue the situation to some extent. For authors in my position, this is now the only reliable route to market. April is the busiest month for debut releases in the UK, and every author I know is pinning her hopes on the success of the e-book and audio, thanking the stars for this technology. Digital editions don’t put bookshop staff or distribution teams at risk. They can bring books to readers in volume and keep the industry afloat.

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