According to the calendar, fall doesn’t officially begin for another week and a half. But for the publishing industry, the period after Labour Day marks the launch of the busiest, most important, and most crowded segment of the year. Some bookstores tally 80% or more of their annual sales during the Christmas selling period, roughly from October through December 31. And since such an emphasis is placed on frontlist titles in a buzz-driven, attention-deficit book ecosystem, it makes sense for publishers to want to push out the large portion of their prestige titles in the fall. If a book can get nominated for a high-profile award, so much the better.
But fall 2020 is not like a normal publishing season. Ongoing restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a patchwork of bookstore closings and partial reopenings across Canada, creating a retail environment that is anything but stable or consistent. Some stores, such as the Indigo big box chain, have reopened to the public more or less entirely in metropolitan centres like Toronto (physical distancing measures, requirements for customers to wear masks, and enhanced cleaning protocols have been instituted), subject to restrictions on the number of customers permitted in-store at any given time. The smaller Toronto mini-chain Book City has also reopened, with similar rules about the number of customers allowed in the stores at once (to preserve physical distancing requirements) and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing measures in place. Other independents are opening their doors to a limited number of browsers at a time or offering appointment shopping.
The gradual reopening of bookstores for in-person browsing is significant, given that the online environment makes serendipitous discovery of titles difficult; it is inevitably the smaller books with less promotional heft behind them that fall by the wayside. It’s helpful, then, to have access to professionally curated selections of physical books, however limited that access may be.
Yet the pandemic has thrown release dates into chaos; many publishers, wary of the lack of potential sales resulting from Canada-wide shutdowns in March, have bumped publication of spring books into fall, creating what is in effect a double cohort of new books. Fall titles and some postponed spring titles will all compete for attention and shelf space in an economy that remains half shuttered. In any normal year, more books are published than any one person can possibly keep abreast of; this year provides an even greater challenge and heightened potential for even bigger books to get ignored or go wanting for readers.
Certainly, there are cultural forces that are attempting to push back against this eventuality. The Scotiabank Giller Prize yesterday released a steroid-enhanced fourteen-book longlist including the first graphic novel to be nominated for the award (Clyde Fans by Seth), the first novel from a second-generation nominee (All I Ask by Eva Crocker), and nominations for books from small presses Véhicule (Dominoes at the Crossroads by Kaie Kellough) and Arsenal Pulp (Honey Butter Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi). Bookstores are devoting plenty of prominent shelf and table space to anti-racism titles in the wake of the civil rights protests that erupted in the U.S. in June; those protests have also had the laudatory benefit of increasing the sales at Black-owned independent bookstores throughout North America. And annual fall festivals such as the Eden Mills Writers Festival, Word On The Street, the Vancouver Writers Fest, and the Toronto International Festival of Authors have pivoted online and are providing content that is robust and innovative.
But the perennial problem of too many books in the marketplace is this year exacerbated by the pandemic and other demands on public attention – not the least of them the looming presidential election down south. What book media remains is stretched to the breaking point and must also cope with pressures from decreased ad revenue and cutbacks to pages and personnel. Authors, meanwhile, are caught in a perfect storm of crises not of their making, including the necessity to promote their work in an inimical environment made more difficult by an unforeseen coronavirus that is wreaking havoc on every aspect of the publishing process. (This is particularly true of printing and distribution: two of the most important – and yet frequently overlooked – parts of the publishing ecosystem.)
In his 2012 book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, David Quammen writes: “[H]ere’s the thing about outbreaks: They end.” That is surely true for Covid-19 also, though at this point no one can predict how long the virus will continue to run rampant or at what point things may return to a greater semblance of normalcy. Once the dust settles, publishers and booksellers will face a hard road ahead. What happens in the next four months will be essential in determining exactly how hard that road will be and how many casualties might appear along the way.