The Book World in Crisis

The Book World in Crisis

The whole world, of course, is in crisis and there’s no reason to think our corner of the economy is suffering any more than any other, but it is our corner so we thought we’d give you an idiosyncratic overview of what’s happening in the world of books.

1) The biggest news from the last couple of weeks was the collapse of the London Book Fair, where tout le monde gathers to sell international literary rights. That was followed this week by the postponement of Book Expo in New York, which had been slated for May and is now penciled in for July. Most of the publishers we’ve spoken to in Canada, Europe, and the U.K. have been pursuing rights deals by telephone and email. There are a lot of deals being done.

Canada is supposed to be guest of honor at the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair (another rights swap) in October. A lot of Canadian publishers are very excited about this and are right this minute deciding whether to pay $2850 for the display stand with a wastebasket or $1580 for the smaller display stand with no wastebasket. It’s anyone’s guess whether the whole Frankfurt affair will find the wastebasket. Many things have to improve in many parts of the world for it to come off.

2) This item affects only Sutherland House, not the rest of the industry, but Misbehaviour (above) starring Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw was released last Friday, three days before most London theatres closed. The movie (trailer here) was getting good reviews, including four stars in the Guardian. An expensive ad buy had been placed in the weeks leading to the release. Misbehaviour was set to be the biggest British movie in the first half of 2020. Now it will almost certainly underperform in its home market. We bleed for our friends at Pathé and Left Bank Pictures. The silver lining is that the producers signed a U.S. theatre distribution agreement this week so they’ll have a chance to recoup on this side of the Atlantic whenever people return to the big screens.

Misbehavior is the story of the 1970 Miss World contest, famous for being disrupted by British feminists, and also for being the first major pageant to crown a woman of color—Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, now a Canadian living in Oakville. Sutherland House is publishing Ms. Hosten’s delightful memoir, Miss World 1970. It was released in the U.K. last week and will be available in Canada and the U.S. as scheduled later this spring. Advance orders here.

3) We’ve been worrying about booksellers. Sales dropped 10% last week in both Canada and the U.S. We checked on our favorites and the news was better than expected. Daunt Books in London is open with reduced hours. Three Lives & Co. in the West Village is closed but accepting orders for curbside pickup, free delivery in the neighborhood, and mail delivery. Ben McNally in Toronto has canceled its annual and always well-attended Books & Brunch on April 19 but the store is still open Mondays to Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Audrey’s in Edmonton is stoically keeping regular hours (bless those Albertans). For their sake, for everyone’s sake, we hope this passes quickly.

The U.S. chain Barnes & Noble has closed a couple of stores in the stricken Bay area but is otherwise determined to stay open. CEO James Daunt has hinted that forced closures could put the troubled chain under. That would be hell for the American literary community. Barnes & Noble accounts for a huge swath of the square footage devoted to book retailing in the U.S.

Unfortunately, Powell’s Books in Portland, the world’s largest independent (two million volumes), and maybe the best all-around bookstore anywhere, has shut down. This is tragic. It employed 580 people, the vast majority of whom have been laid off. (Who knew bookselling was so labor intensive? It’s a huge store but 580 people.) Owner Emily Powell has said she’s doing everything in her power to keep the store alive, but she does not sound optimistic.


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The Indigo chain, which had a horrible 2019, has closed all 88 Chapters and Indigo stores and 111 Coles, Indigo Spirit, and The Book Company outlets until the end of March. A public company with deeper pockets than Powell’s, Indigo has committed to full pay for employees with scheduled shifts. CEO Heather Reisman did not have to do that; a lot of other public companies are not behaving as decently. Online orders are being filled.

Half Price Books in the U.S. has closed its 126 stores, as has McNally Jackson in New York City, Busboys and Poets in D.C., and the wonderful Prairie Lights store in Iowa City (but you can listen to it here).

Independent bookstore day (April 25) has been postponed. All of this is likely to undo what in recent years had been encouraging growth among independent booksellers in the U.S.

Things could be worse. France has shuttered all bookstores. So has Italy.

4) Publishers are now counting on Amazon more than ever. How does Amazon respond? By “deprioritizing books” in favor of household staples, medical devices, and high demand products. Its PR team is spinning this as Amazon saving lives by putting ventilators and serums ahead of mere books. Of course, no one really knows how Amazon works, and no one trusts it either. Is it unreasonable to assume that Amazon has deprioritized books because it has no incentive to incur the cost of speedy delivery when the rest of the bookselling world is on its knees?

At least Jeff Bezos (above) is ok. He’s hiring 100,000 more workers to keep up with all those ventilator orders.

5) What’s selling? Nothing unusual at the top of fiction bestseller lists. American Dirt. Little Fires Everywhere. Where the Crawdads Sing. But Stephen King’s The Stand, a post-apocalyptic thriller about a modified strain of influenza that kills most of the world’s population, is a top-ten Amazon.ca seller for the first time since the 1970s. The author (below) has a few things to say about that.

For inexplicable reasons, UK readers prefer a Dean Koontz pandemic thriller to King’s (there’s no comparison). The Eyes of Darkness, published in 1981, was atop the Amazon.co.uk fiction chart when we checked Thursday evening.

At the same time, psychic Sylvia Browne’s End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies About the End of the World was the number three non-fiction seller on Amazon.ca. Ffs people. Just google her.

More reasonably, Michael Osterholm’s Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs is in the top ten. And it may finally make sense that Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is selling like crazy.

Also moving in huge volumes are kids’ instructional books: numbers, times tables, problem-solving, telling time, spelling. Everyone’s a homeschooler now:

6) March and April are prime-time for spring book releases. It will be difficult for any author to get a hearing in mainstream media (or anywhere else) for the foreseeable future. Unless you’re Paulo Giordano. His publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, just happened to have his next book ready to go: How Contagion Works: Science, Awareness and Community in Times of Global Crises. The author is a novelist with a PhD in physics and he is donating his royalties to medical research charities.

7) Business as usual at Sutherland House. We work remotely a lot of the time anyway, and with an abundance of editing to do, we have not suffered inconvenience. Copy-editors and typesetters are still working. Printers are still printing. Books are moving from loading dock to loading dock. Even publicists and salespeople are busy.

We are spared some of the problems of the larger publishing houses. An agent sent us a letter he received from Madeline McIntosh, CEO of Penguin Random House in New York, whose firm is in a pickle.

PRH releases many books a week at this time of year: it has 2,305 books listed as “coming soon.” It is getting bombarded with calls from anxious agents (who have been bombarded with calls from anxious authors) wanting to know the plan. Will their books be launched directly into this calamity? McIntosh does not offer much reassurance:

We are acutely aware of the particular anxieties and unanswered questions that you and your clients have, especially those with upcoming publication dates. We are very hard at work thinking through all possible contingencies for how to protect their interests. As we review options, we want to be very careful not to push forward with across-the-board revised plans if those new plans are likely to change again within days. What we’ve learned so far is that there’s value in making decisions on a week-by-week (or day-by-day) basis. And we want as much as possible to be able to make recommendations to you based on the unique situation of each publication.

Penguin Random House is so big, with so many releases each month, that it can’t easily shuffle books from, say, March to May or August.

What would you do if, like Penguin Random House, you have former CIA officer Jung H. Pak’s Becoming Kim Jong Un due to hit the market April 28? Nobody cares about Kim Jong Un (above) right now and it’s unlikely they’ll be more interested in him four weeks down the road. If you were PRH and you’d paid a lot for the book, you might consider postponing the release until autumn. But that won’t work. No one is going to be interested in Kim Jong Un in the midst of Trump-Biden.

So maybe you hold the book until Spring, 2021? That season is already packed with all the books that got pushed back from Fall 2020 in anticipation of a wild election season.

PRH will probably go ahead with Pak this spring, and almost all of its other books, regardless of the shape of the market.

8) It’s funny how books can become newly relevant in unexpected ways. Our own Jeff Sutherland, whose memoir Still Life came out last October, writes this week in the Globe & Mail of his expertise in social distancing.

9) In case you missed it, we wrote an article that had some timely and well-received thoughts from Daniel Defoe. A Journal of the Plague Year remains our highest recommendation for current reading. When you’re done with Dafoe, here’s the best and most relevant non-fiction reading list we’ve seen.

 

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