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They Were Meant to Be the Season’s Big Books. Then the Virus Struck. | Press "Enter" to skip to content

They Were Meant to Be the Season’s Big Books. Then the Virus Struck.

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Months ago, in what now feels like another era, publishers planning their 2020 schedules hoped to avoid releasing books in the fall, typically the industry’s biggest season. Editors and writers worried that new releases would be lost in the deluge of political news leading up to the presidential election, so publishers jammed some of their biggest titles into the spring.

Now, a reverse exodus of sorts is taking place. Publishers are pushing back the release of dozens of books to summer and fall, in hopes that by then the coronavirus outbreak will be waning, bookstores will reopen, and authors will be able to tour and promote their work.

Some of the most anticipated titles of the spring have been delayed by weeks or months — including the latest by the best-selling children’s book author Jeff Kinney, literary novels by Graham Swift and Ottessa Moshfegh, and nonfiction books by Representative Eric Swalwell of California, the Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings and the comedians and late-night television hosts Desus and Mero.

“Bookstores are shuttered, everyone right now is worried about their health and their livelihoods, there’s so much anxiety,” said the writer Laila Lalami, whose new nonfiction book, “Conditional Citizens,” was scheduled to come out from Pantheon in April, but has been moved to the fall. “It makes sense to postpone it until there’s a bit more clarity, until we know what’s going to happen.”

Some publishers are even moving books to next year: Atria pushed the release of Charlotte Bismuth’s “Bad Medicine,” a nonfiction account of a criminal case involving a pill-pushing New York doctor, to January 2021. “We are hopeful this new date will give readers an opportunity to consider this worthy book with less distraction,” an email announcing the date change said.

Such moves are a gamble, given the uncertainty surrounding the course of the epidemic and the economic crisis. Some publishers worry that the situation could be even worse in a few months, if more warehouses and distribution centers close, and if publishers have to confront reduced capacity at printing presses. Paper shortages could also become an issue, as more paper stock gets consumed making cardboard for deliveries of essential products.

“For authors, it’s really tough,” said Daniel Halpern, the publisher of Ecco. “You work on a book for two or three years, and suddenly you find it coming out in a plague. There’s so much unknown, and there’s so much changing every hour.”

Publishers who are delaying books now, in hopes that they can sell more copies in the future, are facing revenue shortfalls in the meantime.

Abrams Books decided to postpone books by several of its prominent authors, most notably the next entry in Mr. Kinney’s Wimpy Kid universe, “Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Adventure,” which was moved from April to early August. Abrams was anticipating a massive hit, with an announced first printing of three million copies.

“It was kind of a war room decision,” said Michael Jacobs, the president and chief executive of Abrams. “We moved it with our fingers crossed that in August we’ll be back to some semblance of normal.”

Artists in every field, from musicians, dancers and opera singers to actors and television writers, have seen their livelihoods and income disrupted, or in some cases evaporated, as theaters, comedy clubs and studios have closed in the face of the epidemic. In some ways, the publishing industry is better positioned than many other businesses to weather the impact of the coronavirus. Books are in a way an ideal medium for this moment: Reading is a solitary act, and people who are sheltering in place may turn to books for escape, solace and connection.

There are some encouraging signs for publishers. Unit sales of print books remained steady in the week that ended March 21, after dropping by 10 percent the previous week, according to NPD BookScan. Sales of children’s nonfiction were especially strong, rising by nearly 70 percent that week, a spike that resulted from millions of children being home schooled.

But the longer the economic and public health crisis lasts, the harder it will be for publishers and book retailers to keep their companies afloat.

New York City, which has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in this country, is in many ways the center of the literary world, home to the biggest publishing houses and literary agencies. In a stark example of the toll the epidemic is taking on the industry, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, where every May tens of thousands of publishers, librarians and writers normally gather for BookExpo, the publishing industry’s biggest annual convention, is being converted into a makeshift hospital. BookExpo has been postponed until late July, but even that may be untenable. Major publishing companies, including Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette and MacMillan, have withdrawn from the event.

There’s a growing fear that the temporary closure of bookstores around the country may in many cases become permanent. Beloved stores like Powell’s in Portland, McNally Jackson and the Strand in New York, and The Tattered Cover in Denver — shops that are fixtures of their communities and cultural landmarks as much as retail outlets — have laid off employees or put them on unpaid leave.

Barnes & Noble, which was already struggling before the pandemic hit, has closed hundreds of stores for the time being.

“The very functions of the literary world have been put in an induced coma,” said James Daunt, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble. “There’s going to be a barren period when all the books that were to be published now and over the next few months are going to be shunted forward into the calendar. Fewer books will see the light of day.”

Some smaller publishers have begun laying off staff. Rowman & Littlefield, which specializes in academic and educational publishing, has furloughed all of its employees, according to Publishers Lunch. Skyhorse Publishing, an independent press, laid off 30 percent of its employees this week, a result of declining sales and lost revenue resulting from moving titles to the fall.

Another looming concern for publishers is disruption to warehouses and book distribution centers, which could cause the book business to grind to a halt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt closed its Indiana distribution center until April 6 and placed a hold on all orders. The children’s publisher Scholastic, which relies in part on school book fairs for revenue, has temporarily closed warehouses and distribution centers, the company announced last week.

Ingram Content Group, which runs print manufacturing and book distribution centers in five states, is still operating all of its centers, even in states that have issued shelter-in-place orders and directed nonessential businesses to close. For the moment, Ingram’s services are “considered essential,” and the company has been encouraged to continue operating, Ingram said in a statement this week.

Publishers and booksellers hope that a rise in online sales and e-books could help offset losses from store closures. Bookshop, a new e-commerce site where customers can buy print books directly from independent stores, has seen sales surge since the coronavirus outbreak hit, to $380,000 in sales this week, up from an average of $28,000 a week in February, according to Andy Hunter, the founder and chief executive of Bookshop. More than 350 independent bookstores are selling books through the site, which ships directly to customers through Ingram, allowing stores to sell books even when their physical outlets are closed.

Though online sales might provide a temporary lifeline, many in the industry are worried about the lingering loss to the literary world as festivals and book fairs and author readings disappear for the foreseeable future.

Ms. Lalami, who, like many writers, had to cancel her planned appearances for March and April, said she fears the lost sense of community resulting from the pandemic as much as the economic toll for booksellers and authors.

“Right now my worry is really about books and book culture,” she said. “When it comes to something like bookstores as a space of cultural togetherness, there’s no online replacement for that. That’s something that worries me as a reader as much as a writer.”


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