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How book world is embracing a changing landscape after ravages of lockdown

Publishing industry professionals are upbeat about the future post-pandemic, writes Alison Walsh

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Really bad timing  ... crime writer Liz Nugent’s new novel 'Our Little Cruelties' came out on Thursday March 12 and the bookshops closed on the Saturday but it still topped the best-sellers charts

Really bad timing ... crime writer Liz Nugent’s new novel 'Our Little Cruelties' came out on Thursday March 12 and the bookshops closed on the Saturday but it still topped the best-sellers charts

Really bad timing ... crime writer Liz Nugent’s new novel 'Our Little Cruelties' came out on Thursday March 12 and the bookshops closed on the Saturday but it still topped the best-sellers charts

'The changes we dread most may contain our salvation," said Barbara Kingsolver in her essay collection, Small World. This might seem wildly inappropriate when so many of us have lost jobs, family, friends, the businesses into which we've put our all and which keep our communities together - all in the blink of an eye. Books provide one of the small beacons of light during all of this change: a chance to escape, to gain solace, to discover. As children's writer Jacqueline Wilson told Alison Flood in The Guardian: "I haven't baked a single cake, I haven't learned a new language, but I've read a great deal."

But can the book business survive Covid, when so many other industries are in peril? Can it continue to offer readers just what they've been looking for, and what will the future look like when we come out of this period of turbulence?

It's certainly true that everyone in the trade has had to adapt quickly to 'the new normal', with books initially being hard to get hold of as wholesalers and retailers closed. Nicki Howard, director of Gill Books, says: "With no bookshops open we've had to park the release of some books. If an author has given a year or two of their life… it just didn't seem right to let something out when we weren't sure people would be able to get their books." The exception to this rule has been their big seller of the spring, The Daly Dish, by Gina and Karol Daly. With sufficient stock in bookshops for online ordering, and due to the authors' avid Instagram following, it became 'the bestselling cookbook in Irish history'.

But this serendipity, a case of a book meeting just what the at-home audience needed, doesn't necessarily carry over to the rest of the trade. Many authors have been blindsided by the sudden shutdown.

Bestselling author Liz Nugent's Our Little Cruelties "came out on the Thursday [March 12] and the bookshops closed on the Saturday". Her launch was a casualty, but as an established author, her publicity schedule went on more or less as normal, helped by a move online: "I did lots of virtual festivals. The BBC Book weekend is coming up - I'm going to be part of that, there's Newcastle Noir in the UK, Dani Gill in Droichead Arts Centre is doing an online book interview series… I'm getting as much publicity as I would have got, but I'm not getting out and meeting readers." This is something she misses, but "I do feel that I'm in a fortunate position". Concern for relatives and friends has kept her grounded, and she is even able to joke: "My American publication dates are not until November, so hopefully that'll be a nice distraction from the elections for American readers."

She is also keen to support other March-published authors, such as Michelle Gallen with Big Girl, Small Town, Hilary Fannin with The Weight of Love, Frances Macken with You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here and Alan McMonagle's Laura Cassidy's Walk of Fame. "I'm always delighted for other writers' success and people doing well - this is a leveller, because everybody is paralysed to some extent, so nobody needs to beat themselves up."

For literary agent Sallyanne Sweeney of London-based MMB Creative, there are signs of hope even for beleaguered authors. "There have been some incredible online launches," she says. "And I was really impressed with some of the writing festivals that have gone online, such as Cúirt in Galway. There are some readers who might not have been able to go to that festival otherwise. When we're hopefully able to go back to bookshops and book signings and being able to do events with crowds of people, there's no reason why you can't also have these kind of online forums. Hopefully there are new ways of reaching people."

She also feels that "publishing might become a little less Dublin-centric and London-centric. You're not having to be tied to an office, so this might open things up for a more diverse workforce."

However, there is no doubting the challenge for independent bookshops. For Kevin Hanna, manager of family business Alan Hanna's Bookshop on Dublin's Rathmines Road, before the lockdown, "it was a bit like Christmas, with people coming in buying armfuls of books and board games to stock up and extra bags full of schoolbooks, but since then, it's been a bit of a poisoned chalice". Hanna had to send his loyal staff home and close the café, a local institution that also brings customers through the shop. However, "we've been really touched by the amount of support we've received," he says of the local customers who continued to order from them. And, even though the Amazon behemoth is now fulfilling book orders, "sales have increased substantially over the past week. If I had this the rest of the time, I'd be laughing!" Another ray of hope for indies came courtesy of An Post and Bookselling Ireland, who have offered a special rate of €2.95 for book packages up to 10kg, an added incentive to shop local.

And when this is all over, will things return to the way they once were? Hanna is hopeful for change. "I'd like to think we'll have some new readers. Hopefully, they'll see the benefits of reading a book as opposed to reading off a tablet. Maybe post-Covid, people will want to go into bookshops again, have a browse." Sweeney says: "An interesting conversation that I'm having with editors at the moment is, what will people want to read after this? A book deal I've just done is the nature-writing area and reconnecting with nature." She also mentions "uplit", warm reads such as her client Roisin Meaney's new novel, The Restaurant, out next month.

Nicki Howard says: "Part of a trend I think has been happening is scientists as the new rock stars - this year we'll be publishing Prof Luke O'Neill's Never Mind the B#ll*cks, Here's the Science - about life's big questions and what science has to say about them. I think there'll be the importance of expertise."

And the Instagram influencers? "People are going to be more discerning… if they are useful for people, they'll continue to have a life in the market."

So, in spite of all the difficulties, the book business has shown resilience in the face of change. Howard says: "I'm really heartened by the fact that times like this can definitely bring out the best in people. The collaboration and the yes-we-can spirit you tend to find in publishing is there more than ever. As long as publishers remain flexible, nimble and with their ears to the ground, they'll be okay."

Sunday Independent