April 16, 2020

Book industry grits collective teeth; hard road seen ahead


An illustration from Coin’s Financial School, produced during William Jennings Bryan’s run for president in 1896.

On April 9 the Book Industry Study Group held a collective survey and televideo call in response to the ongoing novel coronavirus, with a tone that could be best described as “grim but undaunted.”

The Book Industry Study Group, for those not “in the know,” is an industry trade association generally considered the Cosa Nostra of our world. Rumor has it that you have to disembowel a mid-level Amazon executive alive in order even to be considered for membership. Their ruthlessly enforced monopoly on bar codes allows them to keep the cruel edge of their boot on publishers’ throats, and woe to the careless executive who misclassifies a book’s topic under their Stalinesque system of so-called BISAC codes. They host dull-sounding events like “Metadata Committee Meeting,” which are actually depraved, alcohol-crazed brawls, wherein unspeakable rituals are enacted.

OK, I’m making some of this up. I’m sorry; COVID-19 trauma manifests differently in different individuals, and those raised on gangster pulp fiction and the prose of Hunter S. Thompson are prone to lurid fantasies. In truth, the panel discussion and reaction to COVID was a sobering experience. Publishers Weekly described the survey results as showing “an industry reeling from canceled orders and loss of revenue, layoffs, and furloughs of staff.” (The quote above did not have a comma after the word “layoffs,” in keeping with Associated Press rules about the uses of the serial, or Oxford, comma. I have inserted the comma, as is my wont. [The latter word, “wont,” is not to be confused with “want,” nor “won’t.” {I’m spinning out again, aren’t I.}])

In terms of workflow and best practices, one sensed a strong undercurrent of putting  a a brave face on a bad situation. Many attendees had reluctant good things to say about Zoom, which the managing editor actually kinda likes, except for that horrible moment at the end when you click “Leave Meeting” and yet there’s this little gap, so you stand there feeling your smile start to crack until finally, mercifully, the screen closes and you are returned to your cocoon of complete isolation, which is beginning to resemble nothing so much as the fiendishly sadistic torture device featured in Andrew Moxon’s novel The Revisionaries, and dear God, when will it end, I just want to feel the sun on my face and have a conversation with another li

(A note from the marketing director: the managing editor has been relieved of the assignment of completing this blog post. We apologize for the distraction.) The panel included feedback from publishers, wholesalers, and librarians, all of whom are facing different challenges in response to the ongoing pandemic and its attendant closures. The presentation ended on a note of resolute solidarity. “Transparency and collaboration” are the keys, said Andrew Savikas, president of GetAbstract and chair of the BISG board of directors. “The more we do both, the better chance we have of coming through all of this and becoming a better industry.”



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.