With cities and towns across the country under quarantine, bookstores closing, and in-person promotional events canceled, it's not a great time to be publishing a book. And the urge for many authors with titles scheduled for the coming few months will likely be to request a new publication date. For publishers, though, moving titles in significant numbers will be tricky.
A few of the major publishers have already sent communications to their authors, explaining that they continue to do business as usual, despite the unusual times. And, embedded in some of their messages, is that many authors' books will continue as scheduled, tricky as that may be.
A letter sent to authors and illustrators from Penguin Random House CEO Madeline McIntosh last week said the publisher is "acutely aware of the particular anxieties and unanswered questions" that the recipients have, especially those with a book about to publish. Noting that PRH is being "careful" about moving the publication date of titles in an uncertain landscape, McIntosh said an ongoing concern is that any new plan could "change again within days." She went on: "What we’ve learned so far is that there’s value in making decisions on a week-by-week (or day-by-day) basis. We want to make recommendations to you based on your own individual publication as much as possible. You will be hearing from our editors and publishers in the next few days so that we can, together, make the best decisions."
Sophie Cottrell, senior v-p of corporate communications at Hachette Book Group, said the house also reached out to authors last week to update them on the fast-moving landscape. Cottrell said the company's publishers "let them know how we’ve been adapting in the rapidly changing work environment." Cottrell was vague, though, about whether, and when, titles might be moved. She said: "The promotion of our books remains a priority and we’re revisiting all plans for books publishing now and in the next couple of months-–and adding extensive online programming through our social channels, websites and newsletters-–to connect our authors with readers and ensure that our books have maximum visibility."
Among the Big Five houses, Simon & Schuster looks to be the one most aggressively moving titles into other months, or seasons, to avoid publishing during the coronavirus outbreak. Adam Rothberg, S&S's senior v-p of corporate communications, estimated that, on the adult side, the house has already moved about 145 titles. He said the house's aim is to "maximize sales for each title we publish in the marketplace as it exists today" and that it is "redoubling those efforts under the current circumstances." He went on: "This can take many forms, from shifts in how we spend our marketing and publicity budgets, finding new and more ways to reach consumers through digital means, providing best practices and suggestions for authors about how they can stay in touch with their readers and build new audiences, to making difficult decisions about when to publish books."
On the issue of timing, Rothberg said S&S's publishers have "been closely examining their lists and, in consultation with our sales and supply chain team, and in discussion with our authors and their representatives, making title by title decisions about which of their books can be successfully published by keeping to their original publication date, and which books will benefit from being moved."
Of course for all the titles that may ultimately get moved, many will not. And, as a number of publicists at the major houses acknowledge to PW, some off the record, publishers will not be able to accommodate requests from authors to switch pub dates en masse.
"It's kind of a nightmare changing pub dates," said one high-level publicist at a major house, who requested anonymity. Explaining that, even in normal times, it's tricky to reschedule a title, this publicist said the logistics of moving a lot of titles isn't feasible. The issues, she went on, are myriad. With titles scheduled well into the fall, there are both bandwidth issues—there won't be staff available to market and promote titles moved from spring to fall, if they are already working on a full slate of fall books—as well as other, more practical ones. Without knowing how long the pandemic will go on, and how long quarantine periods will stretch, this publicist asked whether moving a pub date would even help. "It seems like this could be the new normal for awhile," she said.
Literary agents, for the most part, seem to accept the situation, even if their authors may struggle with the concept. "It'll just back everything up," said Peter Steinberg, an agent at Foundry Literary + Media, when asked if he was pushing to get any forthcoming titles by his clients moved. Noting that he doesn't think it would be an advantage to see any of his books pushed to the fall, when he worries they could get lost amid the "big books" that tend to publish during that season, Steinberg was resigned to the reality that there is no ideal solution. "My opinion is that it's never a good time to publish, and this is just a more extreme example of that." He continued: "We sort of have to get on with it, and do the best we can."
Already, some major titles have been moved—Abrams announced last week that it was pushing bestseller Jeff Kinney's forthcoming Wimpy Kid book from April 7 to August 4. Other though, as of now, are staying put. Last week, on a call about Scholastic's quarterly results, Scholastic CEO Dick Robinson was asked about one of the company's biggest forthcoming titles, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, by Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins. Due out May 19, Robinson said the trade group is reviewing its options at the moment, but "feels strongly that they want to hold to the date for now."
While authors with a large fan base or with a large platform may not see their books too badly hurt by pandemic, publishers acknowledged that the likelihood is that books, which are hard to promote in the best of times, will be greeted by an even harsher publishing climate than usual over the next few months.
Still, industry members are trying to find silver linings. Jennifer Weltz, an agent at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, said she has 12 books coming out before the end of May. When asked if she was focused on getting later pub dates for any of these books, Weltz said there are too many unknowns to assume moving pub dates would help the situation. "The problem is that we don't know how long this is going to go," she said, referring to the spread of the coronavirus. "This is our new normal, and we need to adjust quickly and creatively to meet it."
Instead of focusing on schedule shifts, Weltz, is trying to be creative about promoting the titles coming out. "We're really trying to figure out virtual events to bring peoples' attention to the books." She then added: "All publishers have been amazing. I find everybody is working hard, being supportive, understanding and trying to innovate. Maybe I'm a Pollyanna, but that's where I'm going with this."
"The biggest question is, if we persuaded publishers to move pub dates, when is a safe span?," asked ICM Partners agent Deborah Schneider, rhetorically. Instead, Schneider echoed Weltz's sentiments, saying that her authors and the publishers she works with are instead "trying to make the best of it."
One author who is certainly making the best of it is Schneider's client, Chris Bohjalian, whose new novel, Red Lotus, published on March 17. Having seemingly lamented his luck with publishing dates on Twitter—Bohjalian tweeted last week that he has had books bow on September 11, 2001, March 18, 2003 (two days before the U.S. invaded Iraq), and on April 16, 2013 (the day after the Boston Marathon Bombing)—Bohjalian put the comment into perspective when asked if he was feeling glum about his situation.
"I don't think I've had bad luck," he said, explaining that, including the 18 paperbacks he's released in his career, he has had 29 pub dates. "Four of those 39 pub dates have been on days in American history that have been unnerving for all of us," he went on. "History occurs every moment we are alive and things happen. Thirty-five of my 39 publications were seamless. Four times, not so much."
Like many of the industry professionals who spoke to PW about the difficulties of publishing during a pandemic, Bohjalian looked at the big picture. He said his publisher, Doubleday, has "been amazing" in getting word out about his new novel via their social networks. He also championed the work local booksellers have been doing, highlighting the fact that, as of last week, his local indie, the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury, Vt., was still servicing orders through curbside pickup.
When asked how other, less established, novelists can find a positive to publishing their book now, Bohjalian's advice was to keep things in perspective. "If you're a novelist, then I have every faith that you're going to write another novel. The other thing I would say is be relentless on the social networks, because readers are the most lovely people on the planet." He then quoted his daughter, who is the actress working under the stage name Grace Experience. "She once said to me that for the rarefied few there's one big break, but for the rest of us it's just doing the work and taking it one break at a time."