The effects of the coronavirus pandemic began to ripple across the front lines of the publishing industry this week with mounting author tour cancellations, declining sales in independent bookstores, and a growing number of festival cancellations and postponements. In response, booksellers and authors are beginning to use creative means to reach readers and support one another.
Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang reluctantly made the decision on Monday to cancel an eight-stop tour for his newly released graphic novel Dragon Hoops (First Second), after becoming concerned that his tour could endanger his own health and the health of attendees.
“That thought kept me up at night,” said Yang, who has asthma, and is worried about his susceptibility to the virus. In conversations with his publisher, Yang also became concerned about the potential of people coughing on airplanes and being targeted as an Asian-American due to misinformation about the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China.
After working on his book for six years, Yang was reluctant to do nothing after canceling his tour. Instead, he devised a digital cartoon tour. Every day that he would have been on tour, Yang is posting a new cartoon to social media. “The approach that I decided on is that I have a set of responsibilities,” he said. “It’s almost silly to think about that—drawing cartoons—but that’s my role in society. I’m supposed to be promoting my book and talking to people about the importance of reading, and I have to find a way to do that. That’s what will keep me from sinking into pessimism and anxiety.”
In addition to the daily comics, Yang is also signing bookplates for the bookstores where he had planned to appear.
Early this week, children’s author events across the country were still drawing audiences. A Saturday story time at Vroman’s Books in Pasadena was well attended and events at An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Mass., were unimpeded despite local school closures for cleaning and disinfecting on Monday.
However, as the week progressed, the landscape swiftly began to change. On Monday, Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic announced the cancellation of two story times after authors declined to fly. On Wednesday, Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma, Calif., postponed a March 18 story time with authors David Lee Miller and Steven Jay Rubin.
Books, Inc., which has 10 locations in the Bay Area, had to cancel two author events in the Palo Alto Unified School District after events with more than 100 attendees were banned. The bookstore, which is the oldest in the Bay Area, also runs 30 book fairs annually, but had to cancel one next week at an elementary school. Students will be provided with print catalogs and order forms instead.
“The list of author cancellations is getting longer,” said Books, Inc. CEO Andy Perham. “Like many stores we have very active event calendars, especially this time of year. A good number of events have been canceled, [and] we entirely understand why.”
Perham believes that Skype author events will become more popular in the coming weeks and months, and author Yang said that he has overhauled a room in his house to do just that. “I think that coronavirus is going to force us to get creative and what we’re thinking about is how can we make it easy for people to shop our stores,” Perham said. The store is offering free shipping to customers who order online, and has seen a strong response since the offer was launched on Tuesday.
Along with bookstore event cancellations, numerous book festivals have been postponed or canceled, including the Tucson Festival of Books, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the Virginia Festival of Books, the NoVa Teen Book Festival, the SE-YA Book Festival, the New Orleans Book Festival, and YALLWest.
On Tuesday, Scholastic, Macmillan, Candlewick, and Workman withdrew from the Texas Library Association conference, and on Wednesday the conference was canceled and will transition to a virtual event. Also on Tuesday, We Need Diverse Books canceled its annual Walter Awards and the Diversity in Children’s Literature Symposium.
Some industry professionals expressed anxiety about the economic impact of conference withdrawals on publishing houses, but Lauren Donovan, senior director of publicity at Scholastic, said that health was of the utmost importance. “We are making decisions about event attendance on a case by case basis, always keeping the safety and well-being of our staff, authors, and customers as a top priority,” she said.
Authors Ellen Oh, Melanie Conklin, and others began organizing a virtual bookstore on social media as a way to support indie bookstores and authors affected by the cancellation of events and festivals. Kate Messner, author of the recently published Chirp (Bloomsbury), usually maintains a busy touring schedule, but with impending school closures, the author took to her website to create a resource page for children to access from home. Using social media, she recruited other authors to contribute to the archive. The page now includes more than two dozen links and videos of readings by authors including Tracey Baptiste, Debbi Michiko Florence, Nikki Grimes, Grace Lin, and Jason Reynolds. Messner intends to update the site daily with new resources.