5 Ways COVID-19 Will Impact the Publishing Industry

Guest post by Desiree Villena 

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Credit: Patrick Tomasso

It’s been half a year since the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency following the appearance of a novel coronavirus. Since then, COVID-19 has profoundly changed how we live and how we work — and the publishing industry is no exception.

The book trade might be stereotyped as sluggish and hidebound, dominated by a handful of companies founded a century ago, but the pandemic has shaken it up for good. Even after editorial assistants return to their Manhattan offices and debut authors feel safe hosting bookstore readings again, the world of publishing will never be the same. Here are five ways COVID-19 promises to reshape it.

1. More virtual launch events

For self-publishing authors, who have seldom had the resources needed to pull off cross-country book tours, virtual launch events were always the norm. Enterprising indies have long made use of website content, blog tours, and Facebook Live launch parties to drum up buzz for their releases without leaving home. COVID-prompted social distancing saw their traditionally published counterparts take to these tactics as well, sending new books into the world with Zoom-facilitated fanfare.

State reopenings have increasingly made in-person launch events feasible — or at least legal — once again. But don’t expect the new trend towards socially distant programming to disappear. With publishing companies from the Big 5 on down taking austerity measures in response to COVID’s economic toll, virtual launches stand out as a cost-effective promotional tack. Fortunately, they also promise to open up the literary world, giving book-lovers outside New York unprecedented access to their favorite writers.

2. The rise of the ebook

ebookTraditional publishers are taking a leaf out of the indie world’s book in another respect too — they’re homing in on digital. Self-published authors have historically focused on moving ebooks, optimizing their book descriptions and even tailoring their content to make waves on Amazon and other e-tailers. Then COVID-19 shuttered bookstores, and reports of surface transmission turned hardbacks into objects of anxiety. As a result, traditional publishers had no choice but to follow suit.

Even after the pandemic subsides, ebooks won’t be going anywhere. Libraries have already indicated their intention to continue “concentrating more on digital” acquisitions. Meanwhile, readers who once refused to read on anything other than paper may have changed their minds during their time in quarantine — by now, they’ve had months to get used to a Kindle Paperwhite.

3. The emergence of WFH

Source: flickr (under Creative Commons license)

The pandemic has changed more than how major publishers promote and package their wares — it’s restructured how they function from the inside out. In the future, aspiring editors, designers, and other bibliophiles with publishing dreams may no longer have to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities in order to succeed: they’ll have the option to work at a Big 5 press from anywhere.

When publishing employees were forced to go remote by Gov. Cuomo’s stay-at-home order, the shift went far more smoothly than the industry anticipated. Even after publishers’ offices reopen, a milestone planned for September, work-from-home options will stay in place at many companies. For an industry in which diversity initiatives have been stymied by an attachment to NYC, these policies will help shape a more inclusive workplace culture.

4. Trouble for independent bookstores

Small businesses have been hit hard by COVID-19. As a result, book-lovers across the country find themselves mourning a number of well-loved independent bookstores. Among the most significant losses is University Press Books, a literary “institution” that’s delighted Berkeley for 46 years.

For indie bookstores, the post-COVID landscape looks grim: rife with layoffs, delayed reopenings, and anxiety over the health of enterprises and employees alike. But the news isn’t all bleak. Some bookstores were able to stave off the threat of permanent closure by crowdsourcing funds from long-time shopgoers. San Francisco’s storied City Lights, for instance, raised $365,000 in a single day to keep its doors open — proof of the community’s irrepressible love of books.

5. An escapist turn in fiction

For many nursing long-dormant literary ambitions, stay-at-home orders have had one silver lining — they’ve made it possible to sit down and finally write that book. As a result, acquisitions editors are probably bracing themselves for an influx of COVID-inspired manuscripts, a plethora of apocalyptic stories in which viral pathogens ravage the world. But most of them may not be buying.

Dystopian fiction has ridden high on the bestseller lists for years, but publishers seem to think it’s time for something new: well-crafted escapist works that will pull readers into a brighter, more hopeful world.

No matter what kind of titles publishers put out in the future, however, it’s safe to say they’ll get a warm reception. If our collective response to the pandemic has proven anything, it’s that we love books and always will.

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