Illustration by Samantha Roehl ('20)
U.S. publishers sold over 1.8 billion print books in 2018, according to the Association of American Publishers. While a huge swath of market share is taken by the “big five” publishers (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster and Macmillan), there is still a shining undercurrent of independent American presses. Unfortunately, with the coronavirus disrupting almost every industry, the world of independent publishing has not been spared.
Autumn House Press, an independent nonprofit based in Pittsburgh, PA, publishes only 8-10 books a year. They release new books in two waves: some in the spring and some in the fall. Though their spring books — released a couple weeks before shutdowns began — got an initial boost, their growth was hampered by the lack of in-person promotion as well as the closure of most physical bookstores.
“We depend on getting a lot of money from that [release]. That’s our main buying months — March-April and September-October,” said Christine Stroud, Autumn House Press’s Editor in Chief. “And that is sort of the issue with book publishing, which is you put a lot of time and energy into a project long before you’re seeing any of the financial revenue from it.”
Compounding the already stressful prospect of their fall sales decreasing, Autumn House Press’s distributor closed due to COVID-19. The University of Chicago Press, whose warehouse Autumn House Press uses and who is responsible for physically shipping out Autumn House’s books, closed for a few weeks mid-March due to safety concerns. Though it has since reopened, the closure meant that online retailers were unable to order Autumn House’s books for about two weeks.
Book sales make up one-third of Autumn House Press’s annual revenue. As a nonprofit, Autumn House is also able to collect donations. However, they postponed their annual May fundraiser due to COVID-19.
Even beyond the financial impact, books take years of work before they come to fruition. These books are so important to the people who work on them — and not seeing that hard work pay off can be devastating.
“I think for us, the biggest disappointment is that the four books we released in March are not getting the attention that they typically would get,” said Stroud. “And that is pretty heartbreaking for everyone involved.”
Autumn House Press is not the only independent publisher affected. Quirk Books, an independent publishing company located in the Old City district of Philadelphia, specializes in “strikingly unconventional” literature. Some popular titles of theirs include “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Publishing 25-30 books a year, they have had a book on the New York Times Best Sellers list every year since 2009.
At the start of COVID-19 shutdowns, Quirk had some tough decisions to make. While they pushed a handful of release dates to the summer or next fall, some of their books were too far into the publishing process to be postponed.
Similarly to Autumn House Press, Quirk had to pivot their promotion away from in-person events and towards their website and social media. They began offering activity kits and guided questions for book clubs, had a young adult (YA) week spearheaded by YA authors and put out multiple “Campfire Conversations” on YouTube featuring their horror authors.
Brett Cohen, president and publisher of Quirk Books, emphasized the importance of author engagement. Especially with the rise of social media, fans expect authors to be engaged and approachable. Without the ability to have live trade shows, store events and Comic-Con panels, Quirk had to figure out how to promote books without authors and readers being in the same building.
“So making that pivot into how to promote books online, solely, almost, and moreso how to hold author events and allow readers to engage with authors online — that whole kind of pivot is something for the short term,” said Cohen. “But it could potentially be a longer term thing, creating this new paradigm for readers where they could have access to their favorite authors directly online without having the author come to their hometown. So I do think some of these things will linger and change the way we publish and promote books.”
However, Quirk has seen some success from their quarantine-adjacent releases. “The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires,” published on April 7, debuted on the New York Times Best Sellers list. As it was the fifth book that author Grady Hendrix published with Quirk Books, Hendrix had built a platform and was able to rally his fans and receive support from booksellers.
“So it is a good example of something that could be a shining light in this weird time in how to release a book to some success,” said Cohen.
Moving forward, COVID-19 may have long term effects on the publishing industry. Publishing is always a guessing game — with presses trying to take the market into account and foresee trends over a year out. But with such a long time between acquiring a book and publishing it, the question of what the world will look like in a year arises.
“We’ve always been selective, I think in this case we’re being more selective and trying to be more creative in our approach to acquiring new projects. I mean, at this point, books we’re acquiring won’t come out until summer 2021 at the earliest and that’s just because of the publishing timeline of 12-18 months to get a book from inception out to the market,” said Cohen. “So we’re looking at it with those eyes and [asking] what might the world look like in a year from now, and that’s almost anybody’s guess… So it is trying to predict the future. And publishing is sort of always like that, because of the timeline, but [sic] it’s definitely even harder right now because of all the different variables at play.”
Some small presses though, might not have to worry about acquisitions of future books. A survey published at the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 35% of the surveyed small businesses in the arts and entertainment sector expected to be operational by the end of the year if the crisis lasts six months.
“As much as I worry for small bookstores, I worry for the small presses. How long can you go without revenue? How long can you go without book sales?” said Stroud.
Pennsylvania’s statewide stay-at-home order began on April 1, mandated by Governor Tom Wolf. Over seven weeks in, it sometimes seems that the world will never go back to normal. But publishers are cautiously optimistic for the future.
“I do think the publishing industry will continue to press forward in the way we do now — and obviously that factors in a lot of different things throughout the supply chain, such as printing to warehousing to fulfilling to the authors and the designers and illustrators who are creating the products,” said Cohen. “…So I don’t think it’s doom and gloom — I do think, as with any businesses, some smaller businesses will struggle through this economy. But I think we’ll all come out a little more resilient on the other side.”