Job losses, cancelled tours, delayed releases: the Australian books industry grapples with 'huge shock'

In the weeks since the coronavirus crisis hit, Australia’s writers, publishers and booksellers have struggled to keep their heads above water

When the publisher Martin Hughes talks about the moment five weeks ago when the coronavirus crisis first hit Australia full throttle, he talks about panic. “Panic in the community, the business community and the publishing community. Everyone was looking for plan B.”

The CEO of Affirm Press, Hughes was about to oversee the release of two big titles when the shutdowns started – Pip Williams’ escapist historical drama, The Dictionary of Lost Words, and forthcoming thriller The Safe Place by Anna Downes. Rights had been sold internationally for both debut novels, and staff had been working on the publicity campaigns since January. The dilemma: “These are big books, it’s really important for our business that these go well; do we move them [back] now that certain parts of the infrastructure are crumbling?”

The kinds of calculations that Hughes and his team made five weeks ago have been happening in publishing houses around the country as the coronavirus crisis and shutdown measures to control it take a massive bite out of the arts sector.

Other publishers were postponing their releases, in some cases for 12 or 18 months. Trent Dalton’s follow-up to his bestselling Boy Swallows Universe has been held by HarperCollins until September; novelist Kathryn Heyman announced last week that her forthcoming memoir has been postponed by Allen & Unwin until 2021. Hughes and his team, however, foresaw a frenzy of delayed big-name titles all coming out at once. They felt that releasing books in that competitive landscape would hurt more than it helped.

“We decided we’d stick with plan A,” Hughes tells Guardian Australia.

There were early signs that the enforced stay-at-home measures were having a positive effect on book sales. Nielsen Book Australia reported industry revenue for the week ending 28 March – the first of widespread shutdowns – was up 15% on the same time last year. But it has since reported a “sharp decline” in the following weeks, and Bianca Whiteley from Nielsen told Guardian Australia that the Australian book market had recorded a 7.1% decline in value sales in 2020 so far, though unit sales were up slightly, at 1.5%. Children’s books and adult fiction were strongest, while trade nonfiction has continued to slow.

The reasons for the decline are multifaceted: the books industry relies on an ecosystem of bookstores, festivals, events and media interest to shift copies. Many bookstores have shut their physical premises since the lockdowns started, airports are closed, festivals cancelled. Manufacturing and supply have also been affected – early on in the crisis, shutdowns in China caused printing delays; more recently, increased burdens on freight and logistics networks are affecting stock management and distribution.

Some bookstores in Australia have started up free local bicycle delivery services during the lockdowns
Some bookstores in Australia have started up free local bicycle delivery services during the lockdowns. Photograph: Cordelia Hsu/Reuters

Many publishing houses have responded to the market shocks by reducing salaries and cutting staff. Thames and Hudson, Allen & Unwin and Hardie Grant have cut salaries locally by up to 25%, with the latter also making seven of its 200 staff redundant. Melbourne-based small press Scribe issued redundancies to two of its 27 staff, an editor and a publicist – the first time the publishing house has made anyone redundant in its 44-year history.

Affirm is in the unusual position of having neither laid off staff nor reduced hours. It doesn’t rely on deals with bigger publishing houses to sell to retailers, so it has that advantage over similarly sized companies who are at the mercy of their larger competitors. Nevertheless, uncertainty is still rippling through the industry. Hughes says his own staff’s fears were quelled somewhat by the fact that he was upfront with them about the company’s contingency plans: “[We told them that] if we had to reduce overheads in a hurry … we would all go down to 80% of our salary if needed, but that any pain that had to be felt would be felt evenly across the team.”

Likely also helping morale is the fact that The Dictionary of Lost Words has been one of the fastest selling books this month. It’s no prime ministerial memoir – Hardie Grant reported on Friday that Malcolm Turnbull’s A Bigger Picture has sold more than 50,000 copies in four days – but it’s a solid showing for debut fiction, especially with so many curtailed publicity avenues.

Australian author James Bradley
Australian author James Bradley, whose novels include Wrack, The Resurrectionist, Clade and the forthcoming Ghost Species. Photograph: Supplied

James Bradley, whose seventh novel, Ghost Species, is out on 27 April, describes the usual book tour for an Australian author with a new release: “You’d go to several capital cities, you’d do some events, you’d do a lot of radio, and you’d probably visit a number of bookshops,” he says. That would be followed by a run of interstate appearances, usually in the form of panels or keynote addresses over the autumn and winter festival season.

While sales yields from festival appearances can vary, the direct income to a writer from the event fee is often more important – something Bradley says has become more apparent in the decades since 1997, when he published his first book. “As the book trade has changed, I think authors tend to make more of their money from those ancillary events and appearances than they did when I was first writing.”

Bookstore visits and signings also make a noticeable difference to sales, and the curatorial aspect of a physical store, geared towards browsing – tables of new releases, posters, staff picks and so on – are difficult to replicate online.

Still, some literary organisations have tried to adapt to the new world. The Sydney Writers’ festival has started to schedule online panels; the Wheeler Centre collaborated with the Stella prize to stream the prize ceremony via YouTube; the prestigious Vogel award for an unpublished manuscript followed suit; and smaller festivals like the Emerging Writers festival have been running digital supplementary programs for years.

The Melbourne Writers festival, which was not scheduled to take place until August, announced in mid-April that it would be putting forward “a smaller online program to keep literary arts audiences connected”. A festival spokesperson told Guardian Australia that while it was too early to put a number on events, they were planning the digital program to run across the previously announced dates of 7-16 August.

MWF’s early forecasts are not promising for those hoping to see digital events become sustainable through ticket sales: the festival is “exploring opportunities for ticketing a digital program” but expects revenue to drop by a third as a consequence of being unable to run in-person events – an amount roughly equivalent to its income from ticket sales. They say the organisation will rely on philanthropy and sponsorship to tide it over.

New outfits are popping up, too. The Pulitzer-prize winner Andrew Sean Greer, Irish novelist Colum McCann and musician Amanda Palmer will headline a new online-only, rolling writers festival, Together Remotely, created and curated by the former SWF director and Stella prize shortlistee, Caro Llewellyn. Llewellyn says she launched into action after 10 days in lockdown, “watching in despair as cultural programs and gatherings, literary launches and events were falling over like dominoes”.

There remains, however, the ever-present challenge of getting audiences to pay attention.

Bradley feels lucky that the themes of his book – the ethics of our schemes to fix a world falling apart from environmental crisis – resonate with the coronavirus crisis, but he acknowledges that many writers may be facing a profound sense of irrelevancy.

“At the moment I think it is difficult to have a conversation about anything other than coronavirus, and I think that does make promoting a book which is about other things more difficult.”

He says most of his worries are reserved for the sector in the medium to long term. “What’s happened is a huge shock, which means that everything marginal collapses – and the problem is the entire publishing and arts sector is marginal.” What little government support there is has come too little, too late: “They starved the arts sector for 20 years and now we’re just not in any position to survive.”

Hughes, meanwhile, is more optimistic about the industry’s capacity to rally. “We’ve been pulling together really well,” he says. “And I think there’ll always be a soft spot for people whose debuts, in particular, were affected by the coronavirus crisis.”


Stephanie Convery

The GuardianTramp

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