Publishing in the pandemic

Although writers and publishers struggle, local booksellers thrive

The closure of bookstores earlier this year cancelled many book launches and changed how readers bought and how publishers marketed books. While local presses struggled to market new releases, Whodunit Mystery Bookstore, despite being closed for most of March and April, actually saw a spike in orders. 

“People are looking for education, escape and entertainment,” Michael Bumsted, a bookseller at Whodunit, says. 

Whodunit has always offered city-wide delivery and in-store pickup, but demand was low before the pandemic.  

“When we first started with the closure, there was a big demand for things to help children fill the gap in the school year, but going along with that was the real push in larger society to read more about social justice,” Bumsted says. 

According to Canadian publishing think tank More Canada, book sales went up for both Amazon and independent bookstores in Canada, while retail chains saw a loss of $185 million.

“People are buying more books, or at least they are buying more books from independent bookstores like ours. I think that our experience is not atypical. They want something that takes their mind off of the things that are going on,” Bumstead says.

This push to support local bookstores did not translate into sales for smaller publishers. 

“We lost our spring sales completely,” Mel Marginet, publisher at Great Plains Publications, says. “A physical event is really important for a new book, because it gives it that initial buzz and that initial bump in sales, (and) chances are (the book) is going to be on the bestseller list the next week.”

Michael Bumsted, bookseller at Whodunit Mystery Bookstore.

Book launches go virtual

Great Plains launched young adult author Anita Daher’s You Don’t Have to Die in the End in April, but there was no corresponding bump in sales. Since stores have reopened, the book has been on the McNally Robinson Booksellers bestseller list three weeks in a row. 

“A launch really helps with that discoverability for a new book and for lesser-known authors, to put it on people’s radar. Universally, across the industry, online launches are a really great way to reach folks from coast to coast,” Marginet says. 

Online launches had a great reach, but this did not translate into high book sales. 

“When you’re not in the store, you’re out of the atmosphere, you’re not going up to the author to get them to sign the book after,” Marginet says. 

“Digital events have been weird for a lot of bookstores, because, especially initially, there was a lot of interest in attending them, (but the reason) bookstores do events is to sell books,” Bumsted says. 

Authors also feel the loss of in-person book launches. 

“Connecting in person with readers and hearing what (readers) think of the book is part of the reward for all the work,” poet Angeline Schellenberg says. Her book Fields of Light and Stone was supposed to launch on April 16 at McNally Robinson. 

Through funding from the National Arts Centre (NAC), Schellenberg and a number of other authors were able to organize their own digital launches. Schellenberg planned her online launch for April 16. 

“I knew otherwise I would be under the covers, crying about my cancelled launch,” Schellenberg says. 

At her online launch, Schellenberg was interviewed by friend and fellow poet Joanne Epp and was able to show gifts and pictures of her grandparents, as her book explores their emigration and her grief at their death, something she would not have done at an in-person launch. 

As many audiences are suffering from Zoom fatigue, authors are having to change up their regular reading format. 

“People are getting tired of the Zoom things. We’re all tired of the pandemic, period,” author Anita Daher says. 

The launch of You Don’t Have to Die in the End, was also funded by the NAC #CanadaPerforms series. Because Daher was concerned about losing her audience’s interest, her husband James played guitar at the launch as she read from the book.

Mel Marginet includes co-founder of Theatre by the River and publisher at Great Plains Publications among her many professional titles.

Thin Air Winnipeg International Writers Festival

The Thin Air Winnipeg International Writers Festival also had to shift their entire event to an online format. The festival, which launches on Sept. 20 and runs to Oct. 8, will be entirely online. 

“We opted to not try to replicate our expected schedule conventions, because I attended a lot of launches in the spring, and I already was feeling like I (was) flagging,” Charlene Diehl, the festival director, says. 

“A lot of these writers are doing a lot of other virtual events. The other thing that I was concerned about was if a lot of festivals were featuring the same people, and the writers themselves get tired of saying the same thing.”

As such, each reading at Thin Air will be accompanied by something special. There will be tours of the writers’ neighbourhoods, slideshows, a cooking demonstration and a professionally produced short-film adaptation of Daher’s novel, starring Darcy Fehr and Robyn Delaney. 

Most of the content will be available for free from the festival website, with the exception of the writing workshops. The festival will also feature Q-and-As and a celebration of the Manitoba Book Award winners, as there was no award ceremony this year.

Charlene Diehl is a writer, editor, performer and director of the Thin Air Winnipeg International Writers Festival.

Speaking Crow

Thin Air also runs the Speaking Crow poetry open mic, hosted by Angeline Schellenberg. The festival edition will be live on Oct. 6 over Zoom. Sharanpal Ruprai will be their featured reader. 

Each Speaking Crow: Virtual Edition has a 15-minute reading by a featured Manitoba poet and an open mic portion, for which participants are given the option to sign up when they register through Eventbrite. Since going virtual, the crowd has expanded from their usual Winnipeg group to a global experience. 

Poets from the Philippines, Pakistan, Australia and the United Kingdom have found Speaking Crow by searching for poetry events on Eventbrite. Even though attendees come from all over the world, the local group is quite small, comprising return participants and a few new locals. What these participants look forward to the most is the opportunity to connect with other writers, Schellenberg says.

“Poetry connects people. I’ve been in churches and community groups, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been part of a community (like Speaking Crow), where it felt like such a diverse group of people were so supportive of one another,” Schellenberg says. 

This worldwide format of the festival has its pros and cons. 

“I have spent the last few years figuring out how we can minimize our environmental footprint. We have writers flying in sometimes for a 24-hour period,” Diehl says. 

This year, they don’t have that problem. Writers’ festivals are a key part of the marketing of new books for publishers, and this year, the festival is able to support more writers and publishers.  

“I just didn’t have the heart to maintain narrow edges, because there are so many incredible books and less visibility, fewer opportunities for readers to discover new books, and because we were saving some costs like venue fees and hotel fees,” Diehl says. 

Just like with  book launches, authors and readers are missing out on that in-person connection.

“They happen every year, those moments I can’t anticipate. It’s that feeling of awe when you are in the presence of someone who is working at a really high level in their craft with all the heart imaginable,” Diehl says. 

Meeting a highly skilled writer can be meaningful to writers, readers and anyone who engages with the arts. 

“It is inspiring to us as humans, and not just within the literary zone. It is ultimately about the power of being invited into someone else’s stories and understanding that also you are a carrier of stories yourself,” Diehl says. 

Without the opportunity to have that moment and the book signed by the author, festival goers can instead reach out to local bookstores to purchase or order books.

Winnipeg author Angeline Schellenberg at her St. Vital home.

Winnipeg author Anita Daher with her latest book, You Don't Have to Die in the End.

Supporting independent bookstores 

Marginet expresses concern when it comes to readers choosing to buy their books from chains, like Indigo, as they are closing 19 Coles stores across the country, and the Coles in Cityplace shut down this summer. 

Indigo “has driven indie bookstores out of business in cities. Instead of having an independent bookstore in your neighbourhood, you have a chain. If that chain goes under, the industry is in peril,” Marginet says. 

Schellenberg did an unboxing video when she received her author’s copies. Nevertheless, she encouraged her readers to support local bookstores with their purchasing power.

“I told people to go buy it from independent bookstores instead of me. I still have most of my books, but if there is no independent bookstore, then authors are in trouble,” she says.

“I told people to go buy (my new book) from independent bookstores instead of (from my website). I still have most of my books, but if there is no independent bookstore, then authors are in trouble.”
- Angeline Schellenberg

Bumsted echoes this sentiment. 

“It would be lovely to think that everyone is going to continue to buy from bookstores like ours,” he says.

Between virtual events and free local delivery, readers and writers alike can find community in these locally owned bookstores. The experience readers have with their local bookstores during the pandemic will likely influence where they choose to shop in the future. 

“We can cross our fingers and hope,” Bumsted says. 

The Thin Air Winnipeg International Writers Festival runs from Sept. 20 to Oct. 10. Festival content can be accessed through thinairfestival.ca, where you can find more information about Speaking Crow. Register for Speaking Crow on Eventbrite. 

Whodunit Mystery Bookstore offers free delivery within Winnipeg and is located at 163 Lilac St. or at whodunitbooks.ca.

“When we first started with the closure, there was a big demand for things to help children fill the gap in the school year, but going along with that was the real push in larger society to read more about social justice." - Michael Bumsted, Whodunit Mystery Bookstore

Published in Volume 75, Number 02 of The Uniter (September 17, 2020)

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