Navigating the publishing industry during a pandemic
What the heck is going on with regards to delays in the publishing industry? And how can we continue to support authors, particularly those that have been historically excluded, silenced, and dismissed, during this time?
The other day I (Olivia) visited my local Target to pick up a few household items, but every row felt eerily empty. I decided to try The Container Store next, and what I found was exactly the same. Bed, Bath, and Beyond? The same.
While this shopping trip not only presents me as a mass market, capitalistic consumer, it also is indicative of what we are seeing across most industries right now, including the publishing industry: supply chain delays that are resulting in utter chaos.
In recent years, most publishers have moved production factories overseas, especially as bigger houses acquire smaller, independent ones. This has led to an increase in steps for book distribution. From these production factories, books must be delivered to international shipping ports, loaded onto cargo boats, and shipped to the receiving country. From there, they are loaded onto another truck, driven to a distribution center, sorted and inventoried, and then placed on another truck to go to the bookstores we buy them from (and that’s not taking into account what happens if the bookstore is shipping out the title). With just one delay, the whole process can be thrown out of line; with multiple, well, that’s what we are experiencing now.
We won’t go into the specifics as to why we are witnessing so many delays (here’s a great summary that does), rather we want to focus on what impact such delays might have on authors and booksellers, particularly those written or owned by people from communities that have been historically pushed aside and discriminated against. We also want to share actions to take that can help combat potential negative side effects.
So read on and, if you find this breakdown helpful, consider sharing with others who might as well.
One effect of shipping delays on the publishing industry is altered on-sale dates. New titles are stuck on boats, or unable to get onto cargo ships. Books are being pushed back from fall release dates to mid-spring, or even by a whole year depending on the print status. Obviously, this impacts authors (advance distribution, preorders, making bestseller lists, potential awards—especially if moving back a whole season!—, etc.) and booksellers (less inventory to sell, angry customers, limited new releases, etc.). And if books are being pushed back to new seasons, that means they have new “competition” for PR/marketing budgets and initiatives—and we can all probably guess what authors and what types of titles are more likely to be pushed aside and which are likely to be favored (but more on this in a bit).
That all being said, now is the perfect time to catch up on older (“backlist”) titles that you’ve been wanting to read.
One of our favorite backlist reads is Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden (published in 2019). While the story does focus on how Madden’s relationship with her father influences who she becomes, the story predominantly turns into one about how Madden is not defined by her fatherlessness, rather by those that were there for her (which does include both her father at times, and even herself). Ultimately, this focus allows the exploration of Madden’s development as a queer, biracial woman in an oppressive society.
We’re curious: Whether you’ve read the book or not, how does a book’s title shape your expectations of the story? And, if you have read the book, how did the story meet those expectations?
While delays are impacting more than just new releases (reprints are seeing the same issue), reading backlist titles is one of the best ways to demonstrate support for authors and indie bookstores during this time. There are a few key reasons why it’s especially critical right now to support backlist titles, especially those by authors that have been historically overlooked by both readers and publishers alike:
Reading backlist titles can help boost the visibility and prominence of authors of color, LGBTQIA2S+ authors, and disabled authors. Thankfully, publishers by and for these communities have long existed, meaning there is a wealth of titles to explore (not to mention that a lot of amazing authors get their start at smaller, indie presses, like Torrey Peters, Akwaeke Emezi, and many others). Boosting their visibility is always important, but especially with forthcoming titles being pushed back because...
Revenue, revenue, revenue. If an author’s forthcoming title is being pushed back, that potentially means part of their advance is as well. Purchasing backlist titles from our favorite authors can help contribute to their income in a challenging time. And if you love what you read, share it on social media or with friends; there’s always a chance others will pick it up as well.
Building a backlist is incredibly important for authors, as it helps them gain future book deals. Unfortunately, it’s used as a source of credibility (a problem in the industry, if you ask us, as this creates a cycle of marginalization and exclusivity).
There’s also the potential for authors to receive larger advances for a book deal if they have a sought-out backlist. This, of course, is also an action rooted in white supremacy. Largely white publishing companies are still determining which titles are “worthy” of being published and corresponding advance sizes—part of the reason why #PublishingPaidMe is such an important conversation.
As always, whenever books are in demand—whether online, at a bookstore, or at a library—publishers will take notice, and will turn to this interest to shape future publishing decisions. This will happen regardless of a wonky or normal season.
It’s important to support indie bookstores (again, especially those owned by people from historically discriminated against communities) for similar reasons. Backlist titles tend to be indie bookstores’ main source of consistent revenue; frontlist titles are flashy, with sales less predictable given their newness. Booksellers can more accurately order backlist titles, knowing how in demand they are. This isn’t to say they aren’t without their own internal biases, unfortunately; bookstocking can be built on the same values that majority-white publishers use to publish titles in the first place.
What else can we do to help combat the impact of these delays? Here are three other actions:
Support your favorite local, indie bookstore, or find a new one via Bookshop or Libro.fm. Here’s a roundup of Latinx-owned bookstores in the U.S. Whether books, audiobooks, or gift cards, continue shopping small if feasible.
Continue reading and amplifying your favorite or newly discovered authors. Champion their essays online, not just their physical books. Here’s a roundup of five Filipinx-American authors that you might not have yet read.
If possible, consider donating to literary magazines and writing organizations that center and champion authors of color, LGBTQIA2S+ authors, and authors with disabilities. Some that we love are Kundiman, the Disability Visibility Project, Alegria, and Bad Form. These organizations provide much-needed resources and opportunities to authors, especially during unpredictable times like the current pandemic and shipping crisis.
For this month’s downloads, we’ve made a new batch of Instagram Story templates. And, as always, newsletter subscribers get an exclusive one. Visit this page and use the password BacklistBooks to download.
Fall means ~spooky season.~ So light all the candles, grab a pumpkin, and consider reading a book or two.
Words We Love
Interested in submitting a piece for a future newsletter issue? Send us an email or DM us on Instagram. We’re looking for short prose/poetry pieces (~150 words or less).
History has demonstrated the dependency U.S. companies have on capitalist practices. And, as capitalism is rooted in white supremacy, often during a crisis these companies will revert to racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, etc. practices, even if they’ve made promises otherwise.
With delays across the industry, the book community must continue showing support and demanding visibility for books by authors of color, LGBTQIA2S+ authors, and disabled authors. If we don’t, we risk large publishing houses upholding even further problematic practices that they believe will drive revenue—examples might include book deals with problematic figures, over reliance on “trends” (which are inherently rooted in whiteness and white-driven interests and tend to rely on cultural appropriation), and cut advances or print-runs (and we all know who these will disproportionately impact).
But, thankfully, we know this community is composed of advocates. It’s difficult to tell right now what the long-term impact of the delays might be on the industry, as there’s no clear end in sight, but we can do our part to help combat the negative side-effects.
Thanks for reading this month’s edition. If there’s something above you’d like more information on, another topic in publishing you are curious about, or any general thoughts, questions, or concerns, be sure to get in touch.
Olivia and Fiona