Radical Publishing in a Pandemic

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From Tribune Magazine (UK):

The Covid-19 pandemic has had disastrous consequences across the economy, and with the IMF predicting a 3% contraction of the economy this year, that will only get worse. While this will hit many industries hard, there is a particularly deep fear for those in the relatively privileged cultural industries. Many musicians, DJs, artists and performers have seen their income drastically cut, and with companies across the world scaling back their advertising, and with shops selling non-essential items remaining closed, many magazines and newspapers are facing a threat to their very survival. So far, for the most part, the publishing industry has remained out of the news. Yet in an industry such as this, one whose future already seemed uncertain, squeezed as it is by the Amazon behemoth and huge corporations churning out pulpy biographies and endless cookbooks, the results could be just as catastrophic.

Smaller publishers and radical publishers, in many ways the cultural and intellectual lifeblood of the industry, face particularly increasingly uncertain times ahead. Often with tiny backlists, and little to no cash reserves, any halt to their distribution can be disastrous. While many of the major publishers have decided to delay the release of their big summer titles to later in the year, in the meantime hoping to ride out the uncertainty, for smaller houses the choice is far starker.

Kit Caless runs the small London publisher Influx Press. He describes the situation as “savage.” “In terms of trade sales we’ve gone from a decent January and February to sales disappearing overnight. I’d guess we have 5% trade sales of what we’d usually see in March and April.” Without strong back catalogue favourites to rely on, pushing a title back by just a few months can drastically reduce a publisher’s revenue. Influx have cancelled 25 forthcoming events, including appearances for their authors at major literary festivals. “Coronavirus has changed the atmosphere” says Zeljka Marosevic, the publisher of Daunt Books, “publication dates that seemed appropriate in January 2020 no longer do.” The company, which grew out of the London-based chain of bookshops, have also significantly changed their plans due to the crisis. Books have been pushed back to later in the year, or even into next, and as Marosevic notes the closing of shops has hit them hard – “publishing is social; books are social”

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Even if a book is published as planned, getting them to customers is proving tricky. One of the major things to note about the current crisis in publishing is not in itself a publishing crisis—yet—it is a crisis of distribution. Books will be printed regardless of the economic circumstances, the question now is how those books reach customers. It is also, as Sarah Braybrooke from British and Australian independent publisher Scribe notes, a question of how resilient smaller publishers will be during the ensuing turmoil. “In general I worry that a lot of companies do not have the cash reserves they need to get through a crisis like this – not just publishers, of course…The loss of enterprise that could come out of this time could diminish our culture in ways that are almost impossible to imagine.”

Link to the rest at Tribune Magazine

2 thoughts on “Radical Publishing in a Pandemic”

    • Despite some of the high-flown rhetoric crafted by the NYC literati, books are a commercial product. There’s no guarantee that any manufacturer of a commercial product will be financially successful.

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