Bookstores and indie publishers have been scrambling as state-mandated closures expanded along the West Coast late last week and the new coronavirus outbreak worsened. When the first wave of closures and cancelations landed earlier this month, Colleen Dunn Bates, founder of southern California’s Prospect Park Books, saw all of her authors’ upcoming events canceled. The indie press released Read Me, Los Angeles by Katie Orphan this month, with two more titles on deck for April. “This is a big hit for a small press,” said Bates. “I'm now looking at my June books and considering painful decisions to possibly postpone their release, and also stalling on all new acquisitions.”
The publisher operates with a staff of three part-time employees with everyone working from home during California’s shelter in place order. “I've guaranteed them their usual pay even if there isn't enough work to do, for as long as I can swing it,” said Bates. “We're communicating via email, but it's spotty. I'm thinking we should start having the occasional conversation on Zoom.”
Booksellers are experimenting with digital tools as well. In Portland, Ore, one indie bookseller is experimenting with Facebook Live author events. “At the moment, digital events seem to be the only potentially viable option, so let's hope they work out,” said Michael Keefe, a bookseller and publicist at Portland’s Annie Bloom’s Books. The bookstore is currently only accepting phone and online orders; it is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. for phone orders and curbside pick-up and has seen an increase of ten times the normal amount of daily online orders.
On April 2, the bookstore will host a 7 p.m. Facebook Live reading with author Steven Mayfield, author of the forthcoming book, Treasure of the Blue Whale (Regal House Publishing, April 1). The event was choreographed last week by Jessie Glenn, the director of MindBuck Media Book Publicity. “It will be promoted as we would a regular book reading event through regional press and media,” said Glenn, who is lining up other bookstore partners around the country for future Facebook Live author events. “I prefer face-to-face contact,” said Mayfield as he prepared for the digital event. “I did set up a Facebook page for my last book and have promoted the living daylights out of Treasure of the Blue Whale on several platforms, including Facebook.”
“The reading will be a test run for us,” said Keefe. “We'll be curious to see whether it's beneficial for everyone involved, in terms of exposure and book sales. We usually host two to three events per week. If it were feasible to build back up to that frequency, that would be wonderful.” The bookstore would like to focus on digital events for local authors who consign books at the store. According to Keefe, “a large percentage” of the store’s events have always featured local authors.
Facebook Live has also been a powerful tool for C&T Publishing, a California-based publisher of quilting, sewing, and crafting books. On March 20, publisher Amy Barrett-Daffin hosted a Facebook Live craft tutorial for readers. “We will continue to do these,"said Barrett-Daffin. “Our goal is to help our community stay engaged and keep busy during this very stressful time and make something that sparks joy.”
The C&T Publishing team had transitioned to cloud-based software in December 2019, so the transition to a work-from-home lifestyle has been smooth. In early March, they created a plan to prepare for pandemic closures and created a Virtual Private Network so files could be safely shared between co-workers homes.
Looking ahead to the next 12 months, Barrett-Daffin said she “expects to see decreased sales for existing titles, an inability to sell our upcoming titles, and resources being really tight,” but is working with her distributor National Book Network during the crisis. “As long as we can overcome the short and midterm issues I don't foresee a long term negative impact,” she said. “We predict that many more people will look to crafting while they are stuck at home, and that is an upside for us.”
As booksellers and publishers adapt, the PubWest trade association is exploring new ways to connect with members. Last Friday, Prospect Park Books’ founder Bates led PubWest’s first digital strategy roundtable for indie publishers on Zoom, a weekly platform for members to share ideas and reconnect during the Covid-19 crisis. “To be honest, I'm quite pessimistic about the short-term outlook,” said Bates after the off-the-record call. “But I wouldn't be a book publisher if I wasn't an inherent optimist, so I think we'll find ways to keep publishing books and get them an audience.” Booksellers and publishers interested in joining the next roundtable can contact PubWest executive director Kent Watson for call-in details.
Brad Lyons, the publisher of Chalice Press in Saint Louis joined the PubWest Zoom meeting and shared his thoughts after the off-the-record call. Currently, his whole staff works from home and meets in virtual forums every day. The faith-based publisher has utilized cloud-based tools for remote work for the last five years, so the publisher was prepared for the transition. “A large share of our readers are churchgoers,” said Lyons, “so the restrictions on the size of gatherings has forced those who would congregate on Sundays to find other options like online worship or small-group discussions.”
Lyons’ team is now focused on book-group offerings and helping authors engage with readers digitally—going beyond frontlist with digital outreach. “We’re also reintroducing our backlist to those audiences,” Lyons said. “In that sense, this crisis presents a new opportunity.”