Publishing During and After the Pandemic
by J.B. Staniforth
While many people in isolation have experienced their own individual pandemics, COVID-19 has presented a plethora of challenges to arts and culture businesses and institutions. The publishing industry across North America has faced a variety of pandemic roadblocks, but English publishers in Quebec are already in a unique situation with particular challenges, which the coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated.
Robin Philpot, publisher and president of Montreal’s Baraka Books, says the pandemic slammed into the publishing industry immediately, with the beginning of lockdown measures last March.
“We had to cancel launches that had been all set up,” he recalls, “bookstores closed, and Amazon.ca ‘deprioritized’ (their word) books and still has not been ordering books like it used to. It was hard for our authors whose books had been printed by mid-March and were already in bookstores, only to sit there until they were returned when the stores opened again.”
Roland Stringer of children’s press The Secret Mountain, which also publishes in French as La Montagne Secrète (read our profile of The Secret Mountain here) faced similar challenges, citing the twin impacts of closed bookstores and canceled promotional events.
“The worst period for us was without a doubt last March,” Stringer remembers, when we really didn’t know much about the virus and [worried we were] possibly witnessing the total collapse of the book industry. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.”
The Secret Mountain sells internationally, and Stringer says English publishers selling in the US market have been hammered by diminishing sales to American libraries, schools, and other institutions. Previously, The Secret Mountain’s roster of bilingual titles sold well in Europe. However, Stringer says the geographical unpredictability of the virus added to The Secret Mountain’s worries.
“It has been very tricky to map out any kind of coherent strategy, since the virus moves in strange ways from territory to territory.”
As a mitigating strategy, Baraka reduced online book prices and offered free shipping across North America, including same-day delivery in Montreal.
“It helped, but did not compensate for the losses,” Philpot says. “When bookstores opened again it was better, but orders were smaller because many stores, particularly Indigo, rely on downtown customers. Orders have not really picked up to the pre-pandemic level, but returns are down. The fact that Indigo has a dominant place on the book market in Canada has been a problem, because they were not as innovative as the small indie bookstores.”
The Secret Mountain tried to boost sales with online events, which Stringer notes, “allowed us to reach a wider audience, across Canada and abroad. However, that hasn’t necessarily translated into more sales and certainly doesn’t compare with sales derived from live events.”
Online events worked better for Metonymy Press. Co-publisher Ashley Fortier explains that while the cancellation of in-person events was the press’s most formidable obstacle, Metonymy “made the most of virtual tours, and actually managed to reach a much broader audience because of a particular kind of accessibility that doesn’t often exist in real life. Our authors were also able to invite far more guest readers and interviewers to participate, enriching the conversations and adding variation from one ‘stop’ on the tour to the next.”
French publishers fared better in Quebec, Philpot explains, because of the strong network of independent bookstores who were able to collaborate innovatively on how to keep operating during the pandemic.
“Quebecers took the ‘Buy Quebec’ call very seriously and made great efforts to buy and support Quebec writers and publishers,” he says. “Once again, it is the fact that there are so many independent French-language bookstores that made the difference. The English language bookstores did their best, but they don’t have the numbers.”
But there are some English independent bookstores. After Metonymy faced an influx of returns from major retailers like Indigo, Fortier says, “we doubled down on our efforts to drive sales to indies. While we saw a major dip in distributor sales overall, largely because of store closures, our own web shop was busier than ever, allowing us to engage more directly with our customers at a trying time for everyone.”
The Secret Mountain elected not to release any titles in the fall of 2020, placing them in the position to launch a dozen new books in 2021. Baraka, by contrast, took the time off from its roster of traditional promotional events to focus on editorial quality.
“We hope that improved quality will help compensate for the losses due to the pandemic,” says Philpot, though he says he’s eagerly awaiting the opportunity for face to face events again, where he can meet with authors in person and organize get-togethers where people can enjoy the long-lost alchemy of socializing. “Often at such events, more happens than during the actual readings or conferences that have been on Zoom.”
Metonymy’s Fortier is cautiously optimistic about what they and other publishers may take away from this period: “We hope to take the lessons we’ve learned from this time toward a future that is more equitable within and outside of literary circles, one that values connectedness and art that dreams big, takes risks, and undermines anything resembling a ‘return to normal.’”
J.B. Staniforth is a Montreal writer and reporter.