Publishers are working overtime to address the constantly changing reality of a world retreating from public interaction. International rights fairs including the London Book Fair – which attracts more than 25,000 publishing professionals to the United Kingdom each year – and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair have been cancelled, while a major literary conference in Texas went ahead with an estimated 50-per-cent exhibitor attendance. Author tours have been cancelled. Literary festivals have been cancelled. Event spaces and schools have been closed.
“We’re still navigating the financial implications,” says Book*hug Press co-publisher Hazel Millar, whose days at the company’s Toronto office have been consumed with the fallout of cancelled trade fairs and “untangling author tours and events.”
“The financial loss [from the author tours] is actually the most difficult,” she says. “All of the investment in the author travel and hotels and advertising that we’ve taken out in festival programs. That’s all lost.”
Penguin Random House Canada has cancelled all author tours until mid-April, and a number of Canadian festivals including the Growing Room Festival in Vancouver and VerseFest in Ottawa have been cancelled, though Versefest hopes to reschedule in the fall.
At Toronto-based Coach House Books, editorial director Alana Wilcox is facing a “huge outlay of money” for the trade fairs at which she ultimately was not able to do business, and for author tours now being cancelled at short notice. “I don’t even know how much we’ve hemorrhaged in airline tickets,” she said, “especially considering I don’t know what this is going to do to sales.”
Joanna Pocock was preparing to travel to the United States (from her home in the U.K.) to promote Surrender: The Call of the American West, published by Canadian independent House of Anansi. She had events scheduled in Colorado, Montana and Washington state, including a conference to talk to booksellers. “Certainly I will be losing out in terms of sales,” she says of her cancelled tour.
Growing Room festival director Jessica Johns laments the lost income for authors who had anticipated payment for participating in events. “We can’t afford to pay these artists their honorarium,” she says, “and this is a gig economy. These artists rely on these to pay their rent.” Johns acknowledges that cancelling the festival (scheduled to run March 11-15) has put Growing Room, “in a really, really tough spot” financially. It has a pay-what-you-can ticket model, and is asking patrons who chose to register a donation in advance to let their contributions stand if they can afford to.
The postponement of Canada Reads is also a blow to book sales. The week-long debate – taped before a live studio audience and broadcast on CBC radio and television – was scheduled to air from March 16 to 19. Sales for the winning book increase an average of 434 per cent, according to BookNet Canada statistics covering 2011 to 2017.
But as public events are cancelled and Canadians stay home, the book, and the solitary act of reading one, can have an important role to play.
In place of Canada Reads, other books programming is being broadcast on CBC. Media are shifting in-studio interviews with authors to phone or video link. And books are still available in stores, with a Penguin Random House spokesperson confirming that the publisher has “been able to avoid any impact to our spring on-sale dates.”
Some authors are shifting promotional activity online. Canadian young-readers superstar Kenneth Oppel, who made the decision to cancel his North American tour “ahead of the curve,” is offering daily short readings on his YouTube channel. “Turns out a pandemic is terrible for business,” he says, but “a possible silver lining is people are going to stay inside and actually talk more to each other and they might actually read more.”
Independent booksellers agree. Stores across the country are posting online about their quiet retail spaces, but are also taking to social media to offer a new service. Massey Books in Vancouver and Queen Books and Book City in Toronto are among stores offering local delivery to customers unable to come in person. The public gatherings are gone, for now, but the community is still focused on connecting readers with books.
As Ms. Pocock says, “Books will be our friend through this crisis.”
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