Should You Keep Working on That Book Manuscript?

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Anyone who claims to know the future of book publishing — or the future of anything right now — is bound to sound foolish. Yet scholars at all stages of the academic career have questions about what the Covid-19 crisis will mean for the book world. So I reached out to some folks at academic presses to get their sense of the intellectual and financial fallout.

And it wasn’t entirely grim. In fact, the publishers I spoke with seemed cautious yet optimistic. They were moving forward with their planned fall 2020 lists, especially for scholarly books. Most said they expected to maintain their scholarly output but wouldn’t be expanding any time soon.

"We intend to continue publishing our scholarly lists at the same levels as before this crisis," said Tony Sanfilippo, director of the Ohio State University Press. "For us, what is changing is we were growing our scholarly lists before this happened. That will end. We were also acquiring journals. That will also be harder to do as they often have large upfront investments."

Yet editors are still working with manuscripts and authors, even if they’re doing it at home in their pajamas surrounded by stir-crazy kids and keyboard-loving cats. "We will not be in this state forever, and all systems are normal as far as acquisitions are concerned — just maybe a little slower," said Ilene Kalish, executive editor for social sciences at New York University Press. "I am proposing books, I am signing books, and we are planning for future seasons."

That’s the case at Oxford University Press, too, said Susan Ferber, an executive editor. In her own work, she has noticed that her "reading on screen is slower, and I’m more tired from it, but this is because I prefer paper." Likewise, she added: "We’re seeing a lot of distracted faculty who are juggling online-teaching responsibilities, mentoring students, homeschooling their kids, taking care of relatives, and dealing with illness." Yet she’s also getting "a deluge of projects because so many faculty are home and not conferencing and using that time to get projects finished and off their desks."

Naomi Schneider, executive editor at the University of California Press, said she has "already gotten a few coronavirus proposals that I’ve had to turn away, given the fact that books take a long time to write and publish. It’s hard to publish on issues that are moving targets. So this subject might be more appropriate for an article now."

However, in the months to come, she said, "there will be a thirst for books that make sense of how we got here, how we’re coping, and where we’re going next."

What kinds of books are publishers looking for now? Most presses tend to have well-defined interests and lists, and few will shift their emphasis drastically because of Covid-19, so authors should continue to approach places that already publish in their fields. But the editors I interviewed said it was a good time to pitch proposals that relate to big-picture aspects of the current crisis.

"We’re a socially and politically oriented press," said Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, "and the work we do seems all the more urgent to us as the pandemic brings into even sharper contrast the fault lines in our nation and our world. So we don’t see our editorial focus changing, even as how we do business certainly is and will."

In other words, the publishing world, like most other facets of life we used to take for granted, will no doubt look different in the future. Niko Pfund, president of Oxford University Press, noted some obvious ways things are changing: "Supply chain, printing logjams, the ‘double whammy’ effect of higher-education budget cuts on libraries and publishers (particularly in states with significant public-pension deficits), and the uncertainties around brick-and-mortar retail."

However, at UC Press, Schneider said authors should "keep thinking and writing in this period of wholesale crisis. There are so many fertile issues out there: How has the internet become our one true friend amid social distancing and plague? How has the environment been affected by us staying at home? How does a ‘first world’ country come to terms with widespread food scarcity, and what can we do about it? What lies ahead for issues of gender equity, including abortion rights? How do our thoughts about globalization morph as a consequence of this?"

Books with a more narrow focus, however, might have a harder time getting published. As Sanfilippo, of Ohio State’s press, said: "I acquire the regional list, and those books are going to be much harder to economically justify. At this point we’re actually much more focused on our national trade list as that has the greatest potential for revenue."

If you weren’t already thinking about reaching a broader audience with your scholarly work, you probably should start now.

What changes can authors or would-be authors expect? The format of your book may not be print. "If you are not currently signed with a press," Sanfilippo said, "you can’t assume your book will automatically be a print book. It’s growing more likely it will be born digital, maybe exclusively, and open."

Oxford’s Pfund underscored the changes ahead: "It’s essential for university presses to continue publishing (scholarship will out!). If there are bottlenecks in the print process, some scholarly publishers will likely proceed to publication with other formats (online databases, e-books, aggregators, etc.) with the print edition to follow as soon as possible. This is not ideal, but for scholarship that is increasingly found and referenced online, it’s critical that the entire scholarly system not suddenly stall."

We’ve all had to learn to be more patient. So it won’t surprise anyone that with university budgets in the soup and across-the-boards hiring freezes, you can expect delays from academic presses, too. "We have three open FTE positions that we can’t fill," Sanfilippo said, "so that, too, is likely to affect our productivity. But it also helps to reduce costs going forward."

What are the major uncertainties in the publishing marketplace? The big unknowns are, according to Armato of Minnesota, "in the book and journal ecosystem — bookstores, distributors, libraries — on which we’re dependent. There is a lot of energy being deployed across the industry toward patching that network back together. We’ll adapt to whatever things look like on the other end of this, but we’re gaming out scenarios for a drastically changed bookselling and scholarly access landscape and potentially a slow climb back to self-sustainability."

Many academics are worried about the independent bookshops that most of us love. "The famed City Lights in San Francisco is struggling to remain viable, even as we speak," Schneider said. "Of course, the ‘upside’ [of this national shutdown] is that people might have more time to read books. Your neighborhood bookstore almost certainly would ship you any requested title."

But faculty members report they have had trouble getting books, especially when the Chicago Distribution Center, which is responsible for distributing the books of many academic presses to readers, closed briefly. That, says Armato, "was a real shock to the system, but they’ve been great in providing publisher workarounds and highly responsible in only reopening when they had a way to do it that was safe for their warehouse employees. The staff raised a virtual cheer last week when we heard they were reopening."

What about marketing and book promotion? Most academics have friends on Facebook who are doing what they can to promote their own new books even in this disturbing, unending, and mind-numbing news cycle. But the professionals are still at work. "Our marketing folks are brainstorming about how to reach readers in a period in which bookstore talks, speaking engagements, and book-festival appearances have all been nixed," said Schneider of the UC Press. "We have been online for a long time, but we’re planning to stage online book talks and Q&As, digital book launches, etc."

And yes, some books are being postponed, said Oxford’s Pfund: "Is this a seismic event that changes the likely reception of some new books, and narrows the bandwidth for publicity, marketing, tours, and other promotional opportunities? Are other books being accelerated, given their sudden relevance?" Yes on all counts.

Susan Rabiner, a New York literary agent who handles many political books, said the writers who "may get hurt are the ones whose books are coming out now and in the next few months. Many of the biggest books have been held back until September. But in September, even if most major cities have ‘peaked’ the corona curve, these big books will all be competing with each other."

How easily did presses shift to remote operations? We’re all enjoying a bounty of free web content these days, like streaming movies and sweating through at-home workouts. Likewise, most presses have put some books online for free reading. Some were better prepared to do that than others, just as some professors adjusted more quickly to remote instruction than their colleagues. "That so many of our publishing processes moved to digital workflows over the past decade made the off-site move pretty efficient," said Minnesota’s Armato. "We managed it over four days."

And like many presses, Minnesota was well prepared to provide scholarly books digitally. "We’ve seen a significant uptick in publisher interest in Manifold, our digital platform," he said "We have about 20 other presses deploying the platform. The University of Georgia Press, for instance, responded to Covid-19 by making available several of their key course books." Manifold has built-in annotation and comment tools, he said, and a new reading-groups feature that allows for the creation of classroom-specific groups so that instructors and students can collaboratively read and comment on texts.

"When many universities went to remote instruction suddenly after their spring breaks," Armato said, "we heard from a lot of instructors that students bought the books but couldn’t get back into their dorm rooms to get them or that their libraries were closed and couldn’t provide online access. To help out through the end of the spring term, we made about 20 Minnesota books available through Manifold for class-specific text access."

That was good news for faculty members and students, but not so great for presses. As Sanfilippo of Ohio State noted: "Most of our funds come from the sale of a linguistics textbook. Once this started, we decided to open our textbook to reduce the friction students were dealing with moving off campus and into online learning. So for the next few months, the book that supported the press will be open and free to the world, and we’ll receive little if any revenue from it."

What about all the editorial work that usually happens at now-canceled conferences? Scholarly publishers like Oxford’s Pfund are worried about scholarly organizations: "Learned societies depend on a finite number of revenue streams, including annual conferences, many of which have of course been canceled. That is going to make for financial hardship for the societies most reliant on income from these gatherings, especially as there is likely to be a travel hangover even when these meetings resume."

Much of the work of academic publishing is done at scholarly meetings. "We’re assuming we’re unlikely to attend conferences until the fall at the earliest," said Sanfilippo of Ohio State, "so the future of the pipeline is less certain."

Is it all gloom and doom? "If I can just say a word from New York," said Kalish of NYU Press. "We have lived through many disasters: 9/11, Sandy, power outages, etc., and we just get back up, dust ourselves off — perhaps give that thing/person/storm/virus, or what have you, the finger — and then get on with it. NYC will not be beat. We have moxie, we have style, we have chutzpah, and we will be back."

And Schneider, of the UC Press, added: "Life might never return to our pre-Covid rhythms, in some ways. But books will still play an important role in our cultural lives. I’m still planning for the future while on my laptop at home, Zooming into meetings and talking to would-be authors about their work. I’m planning my editorial programs for when we get out of our homebound cages. I hope that’s not too naïve, but I still believe in books."

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane, and a former acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press and Duke University Press. Her website is Racheltoor.com .

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