To publish (or not)

The Organ’s esteemed editor posed me a tricky question. Not as tricky as whether it’s better to let old people die rather than crash the economy and have many millions die of poverty. Nonetheless, in our books world it’s a tricky and important question.

Should we continue to publish into an inert supply chain or have a full or partial moratorium on all new publishing until the supply chain returns to something approximating to normal? I fear the answer is as usual in publishing ‘it all depends’.

So pros and cons for postponing a title’s publication. In the present climate best to start with the cons.

Of the several hundred thousand titles (ISBNs) published each year in the English language only a relatively small proportion depend on high street stocking and distribution. Whilst there will doubtless be a negative impact on sales of these titles in print as library budgets are cut further, overseas distributors will be reducing their inventory, and warehouses will struggle to get books out of their doors as efficiently as usual it still makes sense to publish on the pre-set publication date. The investment in the book in editing, design, typesetting has already been made, the publicity plan is in place, and any sales are better than no sales.

The second reason not to delay publication must relate to the author’s wishes. It’s the author’s book, not the publisher’s and by and large authors are impatient to see their book out, being reviewed and making impact.

Thirdly, if a large number of books are delayed until, say October, there will be a huge bulge in titles this autumn. It is already hard enough fighting for media space in the run-up to Christmas. How much harder if the number of titles is swollen by large numbers of hangovers from the summer.

But there are titles which could disappear forever if launched now. Titles which depend on the high street for their oxygen. Titles whose physical appearance matters as much as content. Titles where the advance royalty payable on publication is so great that a delay helps the publisher’s cash flow. Titles where the author is incapacitated through the virus. Titles which need literary festivals for their exposure. Titles which cannot rely on Internet and digital distribution for their success.

As you can see, there is no clear answer to our Editor’s question except to hope that, as usual, the book industry will adapt to the circumstances and retain enough belief in the future to keep struggling until bookshops re-open, reviewers review, warehouses deliver, and prizes are awarded not in a live stream but in real life, along with the camaraderie, contact and wine.