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26 August 2020

The coming avalanche: why the pandemic has shaken the book world

This year, 210 titles were held back until September, causing chaos for publicity teams and bookshops, and leaving authors disappointed. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

On Thursday 3 September, the book world will see an avalanche of new titles. The autumn is always a busy time of year in bookselling, as publishers prepare for Christmas. But this year, with a significant number of books delayed from late spring and early summer due to the pandemic, there will be more new titles hitting shelves than ever before.

Including academic and professional books, 590 hardbacks will be released on 3 September, a 28 per cent increase on the number published on the first Thursday of September 2019. This year, 210 titles were held back until September after the pandemic forced bookshops to close, wreaking havoc for publicity and sales teams, causing an administrative nightmare for the stores and leaving authors disappointed.

These problems will affect debut authors and independent publishers and bookshops the most. Lesser-known titles will be competing with celebrity memoirs from Ant and Dec and Will Young, Richard Osman’s first foray into crime fiction and the latest novels by Martin Amis and Elena Ferrante.

“I know what I’m up against,” Jac Shreeves-Lee told me over the phone. Her debut collection of short stories, Broadwater, will be published by Fairlight Books on 3 September. “I am aware of the high volume of books coming out at the same time and I’m also aware that the big guns – Penguin, Wiley, Pan Macmillan – command more shelf space and get more attention than books from independent publishers. Broadwater might get buried.”

Sam McDowell, co-founder of Edinburgh-based Charco Press, has been anticipating the date since the start of lockdown. Charco, which specialises in English translations of contemporary Latin American literature, will publish Dead Girls by Selva Almada on 3 September. Unlike many others, the book was always due to come out then to coincide with its publication in the US. “Maybe we were one of the first to have a book lined up for 3 September, and now everybody else has joined the party,” McDowell said.

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The volume of upcoming books means “there’s less oxygen out there”, said McDowell, who is concerned Dead Girls will “not get the profile it deserves”. Small presses such as Charco rely on booksellers who often read advance copies and hand sell their favourite titles to customers. “This is why it’s a tricky situation: there’s only a limited amount of time and attention from booksellers, and a limited amount of space for them to display the books.”

Space is at a premium at Mostly Books in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, where shop owner and manager Sarah Dennis is working out how to stock all these books. “We’re going to have our work cut out,” she said. She pointed out that books sell best when laid flat on tables or facing out on shelves, but display space is already limited due to new social distancing measures in the shop.

Daunt Books Publishing, founded in 2010, benefits from having its own chain of shops which prioritise Daunt books in displays, said Željka Marošević, a Daunt editor who will publish Indelicacy, the debut novel from Amina Cain, on 3 September. She recognises the “bumper crop” of books which will be competing with Indelicacy, but trusts the novel “will still find its readers”.

Besides, she said, the publishing industry is luckier than the live events sector, which has to delay its work indefinitely. “Isolation is built into the concept of books, and it doesn’t matter if you miss the publication date, the book will still be waiting for you.”