D. Eadward Tree’s talking about magazines in this 15 January Publishing Executive piece, but his warning of continuing supply difficulties applies to book publishing too. We are definitely in the middle of a large resizing effort in the printing and publishing paper industries.

Now obviously these sorts of problems are being exacerbated and dwarfed by the effects of self-quarantining, sheltering in place, lock down or whatever it is we are up to now. They may even be being rendered irrelevant, as demand withers. We look like we are moving from a supply-side to a demand-side hole. Although you’d think people might well want more books under these conditions, it is becoming harder to obtain them. As they did at Christmas Amazon is deprioritizing books, and focussing their efforts on stuff people really need, like medical supplies and household goods, including no doubt that favorite of hoarders, toilet paper. New York Public Library has closed, though you can still get ebooks from them. Many bookstores have had to shut: what after all is a bookshop without lots of people browsing?  Amazon is shutting its 21 bricks-and-mortar stores. Just yesterday morning Publishers Weekly told us of layoffs totaling 600: who’d have thought three booksellers could employ that many people?

Some bookshops are trying to survive by arranging kerb-side* pick up — you call ahead and when you get to the store someone will bring out the book and quickly give it to you. Books are the magic drug that’ll calm you down, and take your mind off your troubles! It is of course early in the process, and we haven’t yet worked out procedures which will enable us to work around the slowdown in retail, but it seems to me that publishers might seize the opportunity to develop their direct sales to readers. Yes, you need to keep people apart, but once things settle down a bit and testing becomes available (amazing that in the richest country in the world one has to say that!) then surely a “clean” crew could pack and ship from some secure location.

All in all, this ought to be the making of Bookshop.

There seems little doubt that publishers, most of whom are telling staff to work from home already, will be seeing a sales shrinkage. Probably the sharpest effect will be on trade books which are about to be published. Many titles are being delayed. It seems probable that booksellers will tend to favor books they know they can sell, rather than new books which have yet to establish their position in the marketplace. Backlist in other words, should perform less badly than front list. Beating that poor old horse yet again, let me say — set your books up for print on demand now. But this is all so new and unprecedented that we haven’t yet worked out how it is we should behave under these circumstances. I’d expect that in a couple of weeks we’ll have got a bit more used to new conditions and will begin to establish routines which may end up becoming a permanent part of our brave new world. Strange to reflect that all this is having a beneficial effect on our climate problems.


* In America we seem to have decided that this is to be spelled curb-side. I love the signs that tell me to curb my dog: not that I have one any more. You curb a horse, but a dog wearing a bit I haven’t seen.