Writing and Selling Books in Pandemic Times

From a New York Times story by Alexandra Alter headlined “Publishers and Writers Race to Depict the Outbreak”:

Several forthcoming books look at the dire economic consequences of the pandemic, including “Going Dark,” by the Wall Street Journal reporter Liz Hoffman, which Crown acquired, and Adam Tooze’s “Shutdown,” which Viking plans to release in 2021. Other publishers have snapped up reported narratives, like The New York Times researcher Emma Goldberg’s account of New York medical school students who graduated early to help treat coronavirus patients in overwhelmed hospitals, and personal accounts like “Quarantine! How I Survived the Diamond Princess Coronavirus Crisis,” a forthcoming book by the novelist Gay Courter, who was among the passengers on a cruise ship that docked off the coast of Japan while coronavirus spread among passengers and the crew. In August, Bloomsbury is releasing Bill Hayes’s “How We Live Now,” a collection of vignettes and photographs that capture New York’s desolate streets.

Other upcoming books focus on the virus itself, among them “Patient Zero,” a collection of case studies and medical histories of how Covid-19 and some of the world’s other most infectious diseases spread, by the physician Lydia Kang and the journalist Nate Pedersen, which Workman will publish next year, and the science writer David Quammen’s forthcoming book exploring how Covid-19 took root in human hosts and spread so quickly. . . .

Some publishers said the coming wave of coronavirus books reminds them of the barrage of books about the 2016 election and its aftermath, and the glut of Trump administration tell-alls. Books about the coronavirus involve a similar gamble — some might become the defining narratives of the era, while others will inevitably fail to find an audience. “The difficulty for publishers is, we know there will be a lot, and we know only a few of them will work,” said Jonathan Burnham, the publisher of the HarperCollins imprint Harper.

Publishing books about an unfolding calamity, when the duration and outcome remain uncertain, carries obvious risks for authors and publishers. With so many unanswered questions about the virus, how it spreads and when a vaccine might arrive, works that are reported and written over the next few months risk being out of date, or dangerously incorrect, by the time they are published. The severity of the economic and political fallout is also still a big unknown.

“It’s a hard subject for writers to write, and it’s hard for publishers to buy, because you don’t know what the narrative arc is yet,” said the literary agent Amanda Urban.

Additionally, there is the challenge of selling a book on a subject that’s likely to be exhaustively covered from every imaginable angle. It’s also unclear what appetite readers will have for deep dives into a pandemic that we are living through and reading about obsessively in the news.
From another New York Times story by Alexandra Alter headlined “Coronavirus Shutdowns Weigh on Book Sales”:

There are hopeful signs that after a steep drop driven by bookstore closures and economic uncertainty, publishers are beginning to see evidence of a recovery, with strong sales for commercial fiction and children’s nonfiction. Readers flocked to new releases by brand name authors like John Grisham, Stephen King and Suzanne Collins. Publishers have also seen strong sales online, and at big box stores like Walmart and Target, which were deemed essential businesses and never fully shut down.

With states across the country beginning to lift their stay-at-home orders, chain bookstores like Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble are opening up for in-store shopping again, while a growing number of independent bookstores are opening for curbside pickup, and in some cases are opening for customer browsing. . . .

Still, the ongoing impact of the economic crisis has many authors, publishers and booksellers worried. With millions of Americans out of work, books may become an out-of-reach luxury, as discretionary spending falls. Likewise, many independent bookstores, a critical outlet for authors and publishers for driving discovery of new books, are at risk of having to close permanently. Amazon, meanwhile, may emerge from the crisis with an even greater market share of book sales. . . .


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