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Writer Wednesday: Publishing in a Pandemic

Good morning writers, and welcome to the middle of the week. As the academic year stutter starts in many parts of the U.S., the effects of the pandemic continue to rattle like a snake in the grass. Or a snake in the middle of the road. Honestly, if we kept with this metaphor, most of the country is just covered in snakes but I digress. The effects of the pandemic are very much still present and for publishing and authors, many of us have keenly felt the ramifications of life turned upside down. With no clear end in sight, it’s hard to gauge what the publishing industry will eventually look like when we come out the other side of this, but these months of quarantine, cancellations, and financial uncertainty have often devastating effects on debuts and new releases. Is there an upswing to be found in this mess? What are some of the unexpected benefits?

Save the Books

The initial shut downs likely hit the industry hardest. Between bookstores and libraries shuttering their doors, shipping delays for nonessential products at the juggernaut that is Amazon, and the ever present uncertainty about when and if things would open back up, this mass of factors rippled through the book industry. Some of the big five laid off staff and had to reduce salaries, Macmillan shut down an entire imprint. Indie publishers like Powell’s in Portland Oregon and McNally Jackson in New York had to lay off staff, though Powell’s managed to hire back some for online shipping.

For authors, these shutdowns meant the cancellation of launch events, conventions, and other bookish affairs that are often critical in helping the success of debuts and new releases. While many authors have pushed through and embraced the opportunities to create virtual events for their books, this tactic was incredibly difficult for debuts; new authors, still building their platform and mostly unknown. These virtual events often don’t translate to the sales for first time authors the same way they might for well known authors.

“The toughest thing has been trying to figure out how to monetize these events,” said Jeff Martin, president and co-founder of Magic City Books in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “We get great attendance, but they’re mostly free events. And whereas before we’d have lots of book sales for some of these, that model has not quite solidified yet.”

Beyond the lost sales, there is also the lost emotional and psychological value of book tours to authors in traditional publishing. A book tour was a validation of sorts, for the long laborious process they pumped into their books. It’s a different hit for indie authors, who still lost the benefits of in person events that can be so vital. In person events spark connections, fans who will champion your work, and work of mouth plays such a huge role in publishing, no matter if you are Indie or Traditional.

Can’t Sleep, Can’t Eat, Can’t Write

The toll the Pandemic has taken and continues to take on authors is mixed across the board. Some authors have managed to produce work, often writing as their only escape from the morass of stressors, while others find themselves in a constant block. Others struggle to push through various stages of editing and developmental with an existential crisis looming over their shoulder. In a series of tweets from psychology certified business coach Alexis Rockley, she lays out the stress factors of the pandemic on our creative brains.

“Feeling CREATIVELY BLOCKED? That's because your brain has temporarily diverted all its creativity (aka ability to solve novel problems) to "how do I avoid dying?" while in a narrowed, slow burn, fight-or-flight state. SUDDENLY DON'T GIVE AF about future-based goals, projects, or dreams like you used to? That's because your brain knows being short-sighted is a safer way to cope right now.”

For many of us, with factors of financial strain, the education of our children, and a thousand other issues have created a boiling pool of stress sludge that drains the creativity and motivation right out of us. It is a struggle to get out of bed in the morning and face the day, never mind trying to plot and draft a story or work on structural edits.

Whether you’ve managed to get words on paper or not, nothing truly feels like winning here. Celebratory moments are muted and heartbreakingly apologetic. How many times have you seen ‘It doesn’t feel right to be celebrating at a time like this but--’ in the social media posts of authors who have finally scored an agent or book deal? It is difficult to feel any amount of success without the guilt that comes seeing friends and fellow creatives struggle to get by.

The Flourish, The Future

Writing this post is hard. It is both a personal and shared experience in the writing community. But there is light in the dark.

Despite the shutdown, libraries continued to help their patrons find books with curbside pick up and boosted to their eBook libraries. Many independent bookstores held on by their fingertips thanks to the generosity of patrons who continued to order online and contributed to fundraisers to keep their beloved institutions afloat. Powell’s flagship store reopened this week in Portland, Oregon.

The industry saw pivotal, and hopefully, impacting conversations take place thanks to the BLM movement and #publishingpaidme, which created a platform and audience for long standing issues of lack of diversity and financial disparity within the publishing industry. These conversations pulled national attention, got politicians involved and continue to be a talking point as the book community surged in support of several new releases from BIPOC debuts that broke new grounds on the NYT Bestseller list. The ripple effects of the movement continue, and due to the intensity and focus of a book community called to action in pandemic culture, these effects have a chance to last.

Indie authors have found new opportunities and new ground as the shift to virtual events has leveled the playing field in many ways, where potential readers are more open to varied virtual events than they ever were before.

The future holds a lot of uncertainty, and this pandemic may have caused the industry to wobble, but stories continue to be told, and the readers continue to show up.

The struggle is not over, and writing is hard, but we are not alone. We hurt and ache as a community. For all the drama that comes from social media, writers are more connected and supportive of one another than ever before. The words will wait for us. The world needs stories. It needs your story.

Resources & Further Reading

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