Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Radical Publishing in a Pandemic

A sharp fall in book sales is accelerating the dominance of Amazon and a handful of giant corporations – while pushing radical publishers and small bookshops to the brink.

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”

Whereas some of the bigger independents have room to manoeuvre, those who are smaller do not have so much freedom. At Influx, they have “already moved two titles back which were due for May and June, which will have a knock effect on our revenue, as we will make significantly less money in those two months than normal – we have already outlaid money on [those] books in terms of advance copies etc. too.” In the meantime, Influx have applied for Arts Council funding to make up for some of their loses, and have turned to social media to attempt to make up some of the sales shortfall. 

London radical publisher Pluto Press are also expected a fall in sales of 50% for the year. To help cover this, they applied for one of the governments Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans, but were rejected from the scheme. Instead, they’ve turned to Patreon, and are coordinating a series of events throughout May with around 50 other publishers globally.

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.”

Whilst many publishers and bookshops offer online sales, the vast majority of books are still sold in-store or via Amazon. This has made bookshops the frontline of the crisis, and potentially its first victims. Tom Tivnan, managing editor of industry publication the Bookseller, recently remarked that the crisis “represents a real problem for indie shops and could lead to permanent closures.”

For a while, Amazon deprioritised the sale of non-essential items (shipping on books was taking up to a month, although that seems to have decreased in the past week), and with all bookshops now closed, book sales have plummeted. Many bookstores are still taking delivery orders made online, and independent bookshops have found increasingly inventive ways of supplying customers, this will by no means make up for the reduction in sales from elsewhere. And nor is it obvious how much longer this can last. Warehouses and distributors are already suffering from the effects of the pandemic. The two major book wholesalers, Bertrams and Gardners, who supply the majority of books to smaller stores, have both seen supplies halted in recent weeks. 

In writing this piece I have spoken to many in the industry who are worried about their future. Many have been placed on the government’s furlough scheme, or are expecting to be in the coming weeks. As an editor at an independent publisher myself, also on a furlough, I know the anxiety this can produce. For those who remain, workloads continue to mount and many publishers have forced pay cuts on their already overstretched staff. As Veruschka Selbach from Pluto notes, “the furlough scheme that the government has on offer is not suitable for a small company like us or any media company for that matter. We work with long time frames, usually 6-9 months ahead. It is impractical to have half the team not allowed to work and the other half picking up the load.”

Even when we return to work after the lockdown ends, whenever that may be, it is not obvious that sales will rebound to previous levels — particularly if, as seems likely, this sparks a global downturn. With many worried about paying bills, and barely covering costs from month to month, buying books may simply not be a priority.

And what of the future of the industry? As in other areas of the culture industries, it seems increasingly certain that the future will look starkly different from how it was just a few months ago. The major publishers will no doubt weather the storm, although that will mean little for those made redundant while uncertainty looms. But for small publishers, the threat is existential. If, as Andre Schiffrin, the maverick publisher of Pantheon and founder of the New Press, warned nearly 20 years ago, the future of industry looked bleak, torn as it was between the demands of the big media empires and the very survival of small presses, it now looks doubly so. 

Whilst small independents suffer through the crisis, many of the majors and even some large independents may follow the old neoliberal mantra of never letting a crisis go to waste. Schiffrin chronicled the wave of mergers and acquisitions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the intervening years this trend has only heightened. Bloomsbury, while an independent itself, has used the funds it earned from a string of huge sellers (not least Harry Potter) to buy many struggling independents, most recently Zed Books and IB Tauris. With more and more companies in the latter camp, the threat of near-monopoly acquisition of independents is very real. In an industry where a company’s main asset is its backlist, this will only lead to a further skewing of the industry in favour of big business. The NUJ, the union that represents many in publishing, has already pre-empted this threat and called for a five-year prohibition of mergers and acquisitions from any company receiving public funds

Intervention of some form is clearly needed, and a new environment for the industry needs to be created to avert this crisis scenario. While the furlough scheme is allowing many publishers to stay afloat, however precariously, without the immanent risk of mass redundancies, this can only last so long. For those workers facing that threat, joining the NUJ must be a priority.

Ultimately though, access to a democratic, universal, and open culture must be the goal. Achieving that will take a monumental effort. One option, however utopian it can seem in the current climate, would be to replicate the Norwegian model. This has allowed a country of just over 5 million people to maintain a thriving literary culture, producing international bestsellers like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Per Petterson and Vigdis Hjorth. There, the Norwegian government guarantees sales of 1,000 copies of any title that passes certain quality, with those copies then distributed to the country’s many free-to-access public libraries. In doing so, the scheme has provided a lifeline for many publishers — there are many publishers in the UK and US who would be only too glad of 1,000 sales of their new titles every year.

As Caless notes, “publishing will continue regardless of what happens in the future, the question is how to make the industry relevant and a force for change.” Not all is well with the current model, and it is easy to fall into the trap of idealising small publishers while vilifying the behemoths that dominate the front tables at Waterstones. As Charles Landry, David Morley, Russell Southwood and Patrick Wright noted in the mid 1980s, the “cultural snobbery, commercial ignorance” of many radical publishers, publications and groups was itself a major issue with the lack of sustainable infrastructure on the left, leaving many deeply fragile in the face of any crisis (they listed 75 such groups folding for various reasons in the years leading up to their analysis). Much has changed since, and there is more sustainable, resilient infrastructure now, yet many companies remain precariously placed.

And it is not just the form that is lacking. As a report from 2018 made clear, the publishing industry is still dominated by white, middle class men — particularly so in the top jobs. And while there is a gender pay gap across of the industry of £5,800, there is a “class pay gap” of a startling £23,000 a year. A mere 11.6% of the industry identify as BAME, and just 12.6% of the sector come from working class families. This is true across the industry, and is reflected in the kind of books that get published and publicised every year. This clearly needs to change, yet with the ever-concentrating power of a few big presses this trend will only get worse.

The coming few months will be decisive for the future of the book trade. If left to itself, the current trends will only get worse. As independent bookshops likewise suffer under lockdown, Amazon will continue its stranglehold over the industry. Independent publishers play a key role, whether it’s by offering alternative routes to publication for first-time authors or offering the space in the catalogue for the kinds of radical books that the majors won’t touch. To remain so, they will need support.