There are some advantages to being small, as independent children’s publishers have discovered this week with the abrupt transition to life during the new coronavirus pandemic. However, with significant challenges still to come, indies are bracing themselves for months of disruption to author tours, on-sale dates, warehousing, and festivals.
“In early February we realized that this might be a real threat to the health and well-being of our staff, so we started planning accordingly,” said Mary Ann Sabia, executive v-p and publisher at Charlesbridge Publishing. As a result, the transition to working remotely has gone smoothly for the Watertown, Mass.-based publisher.
At other houses, staff are occasionally going into offices, but otherwise working remotely. Cinco Puntos Press president John Byrd closed the El Paso-based press for three days for cleaning and disinfecting. That way the staff can come in for essential matters. “There are some things we haven’t been able to do remotely,” Byrd said, “so tomorrow we are going to start working staggered shifts at the office to minimize contact.”
In Atlanta, Peachtree Publishing Company’s editorial staff is working from home, but accounting, sales, and warehouse staff are still reporting to work. “Those who can, come and do what is needed on their own schedules and then leave to finish up at home,” said president and publisher Margaret M. Quinlin. “Warehouse staff is working regular hours, disinfecting, keeping recommended social distancing, and wearing gloves to log in returns.”
Perhaps the most affected children’s publishing employee is Sleeping Bear Press sales manager Audrey Macks Mitnick, who is currently in Italy and working remotely while under a shelter-in-place order. Back at the press, CEO Ben Mondloch was one of many who described the negative impact of major book festival and conference cancellations. “It’s devastating for small publishers like Sleeping Bear,” Sleeping Bear CEO Ben Mondloch wrote in an e-mail to PW. “We rely on these events to grow our network and build awareness for our books. We are being as creative as we can using new tools and approaches, but we really do feel the impact of cancellations.”
The cancellation of library conferences has been a particularly powerful blow to Shadow Mountain Publishing. “TLA was canceled and we won’t participate in BookExpo and ALA as planned,” said Ilise Levine, director of sales and marketing. “We don’t know the impact as yet, but we won’t be able to distribute ARCs and do all the handselling we do with hundreds of customers at each show.”
To help offset potential losses, presses are increasing the amount of digital content available to readers, and reaching out directly to educators, librarians, and parents through social media. Holiday House contacted customers early in the week with lesson plans, guides, flashcards, and activity sheets. The company also launched a new resources page on its website with e-books, and space for forthcoming videos from authors.
“Holiday House has been reaching out to booksellers, teachers, and librarians since the beginning of the week,” said Terry Borzumato-Greenberg, v-p of marketing and publicity. “We’ve sent links to our online downloadable materials portion of HolidayHouse.com, which includes close to 300 lesson plans, guides, flashcards, and activity sheets that can be used to facilitate classroom learning-at-home, whether by teachers, or parents who are eager to keep their children motivated and excited about reading and learning during this period. Our hope is that we can offer a concise place for our readers to find an array of resources to help them navigate through some challenging times now and in the weeks and months ahead.”
At Little Bee Books, publicity director Paul Crichton said the press is focusing on supporting authors. “We have heard from many of our authors asking if they can read their books online,” Crichton said. “It’s great to see how our community is coming together and finding creative ways to educate and entertain children in these difficult times.”
Regionally focused Sasquatch Books is using social media to boost efforts by independent bookstores in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, and encouraging readers to buy online from them. The press is also shifting to online marketing and beginning to organize children’s author events on Facebook and Instagram, according to Whitney Berger, associate manager for marketing and publicity.
Sales numbers over the last week have varied, with some publishers seeing an uptick and others seeing a slight dip. None has yet seen the effect of Amazon’s announcement earlier this week that the e-tailer will be deprioritizing book sales, but Mondloch at Sleeping Bear said the news had come as a surprise. “This one caught us off guard. With millions sequestered at home, we were optimistic that we’d see a major uptick with our Amazon business. It’s a double hit, when you’re expecting to see upside but suddenly new orders are placed on hold,” he said. “It’s disappointing because the demand is there, but understandable.”
Peachtree’s Quinlin said she was encouraged to see reports of a sizable uptick in sales on the newly-launched indie bookstore site Bookshop. “I would love to see this come fully online and become a reliable option for ordering books,” she said.
Among the next challenges facing publishers is whether to shift on-sale dates for forthcoming releases. At Charlesbridge, Sabia moved some publication dates up. “We decided to start shipping our April and May releases now since they are already in our distributor’s warehouses,” Sabia said. “We are now reviewing our summer and fall 2020 lists with the idea of possibly delaying some releases. It’s very difficult trying to make decisions when we don’t know what life will be like next week or next month. It sounds like the experts agree that things will get worse before they start getting better.”
Still Sabia is trying to remain positive, as are her fellow publishers. One of her authors e-mailed from Hong Kong to send encouragement from the other side of the pandemic, telling Sabia that life will return to normal. “I needed to hear that this morning,” she said.
In Utah, where Shadow Mountain is based, a 5.7 earthquake hit the region on Wednesday. “Within minutes our teams were communicating and asking if any staff member had needs that they could help with,” Levine said.
“These life challenges can be quite clarifying,” she said. “I’ve never been more sure about the important role of book publishers and our bookselling partners to help people make sense of complex issues and find the inspiration to carry on for themselves and to help others.”