Political, economic and social crises have historically acted as turning points in which ideas once treated as ludicrous, unimportant or dangerous suddenly become drivers of momentous social gains. Abolition, the expansion of voting rights, and the concept of minimum wages are good examples. Weekends and workplace safety, old age pensions, public education, civil rights and consumer protections are also on the long and illustrious list of things we now take for granted, but which we owe to past crises and struggles.
More often than not these ideas started out on the cultural and political periphery. More often than not they would have remained there had they not been championed in books from small, radical publishers. From the 18th century’s revolutionary upheavals to the global surge of labour, socialist, feminist, abolitionist and anti-colonial struggles in the centuries that followed, small presses have played a vital role in circulating bold new visions of society and facilitating democratic institution building. In doing so, they faced outright repression and criminalization at the hands of panicky monarchs and censorious authoritarians, and the persistent ruinous shenanigans of monopoly capitalists.
It seems safe to say we would be in a much worse place today without small presses. And yet progressive publishers once again find themselves in the crosshairs of crisis. In Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new layer of challenges for small publishers on top of pre-existing conditions such as shoestring budgets, lean margins and an economic system that favours corporate concerns. Bookstores have had to close, circulation networks are clogged up and online platforms like Amazon seem poised to gain an even stronger hold of the book market.
Small presses are bracing for a sharp drop in sales as well as a flood of returns from shuttered bookstores that scramble to make up lost revenue. This includes returns from university and independent bookstores, but potentially also from chains like Chapters Indigo, whose CEO Heather Reisman has publicly called attention tothe behemoth’s deep financial troubles. Bookstores are starting to reopen, but the pandemic has upended the shopping experience as patrons can’t yet safely return to browsing the shelves with spontaneous abandon.
Nor can they partake in the pleasures of interacting with bookstore staff whose expertise and enthusiasm are crucial for getting the word out to the book buying public about titles that don’t come with big marketing budgets. “People discover books in bookstores,” says Amanda Crocker of Toronto-based publisher Between the Lines. But as Kate Edwards of the Association of Canadian Publishers tells me, in an industry that is largely organized around the production of blockbusters, it’s much easier for people to select their books from the bestseller lists that large presses dominate, especially if the casual advice of local booksellers is not available.
The pandemic dealt another blow in the form of cancelled book launches, academic and professional conferences and book fairs. These gatherings are a lifeline for presses with shoestring marketing budgets, but they only work if people can meet face to face. The widespread adoption of social distancing also closedschools and universities. As teachers and instructors scrambled to bring their classes online, they began to bombard small presses like Fernwood and Between the Lines with requests for free PDF copies of books.
Amazon took part in the mauling too when, soon after pandemic-related panic buying erupted, the company unexpectedly suspended its book orders and announced it would focus instead on more lucrative merchandise. Direct online sales are now higher than before, but publishers in general are not set up to do retail. When distancing was put in place, printers closed and the mail system became clogged. The ensuing disruption to supply chains posed a major hurdle in getting books to people. It’s not surprising that Crocker describes publishing as an ecosystem. When one vital element falters, the knock-on effects on the whole are profound.
The pandemic has also exacerbated some of the older difficulties confronting small presses, says Edwards. Money has always been a challenge. But over the last couple of decades, small presses have been coping with the combined effects of inexorable digitization, growing concentration across the industry, the downward pressure on prices, and the rising cost of producing books.
One ongoing challenge deepened by the pandemic results from the decades-old convention of allowing retailers to return any unsold books to the press for a full refund. At first gloss, this trade practice seems like a good way to support booksellers contending with the slim margins that define a market in which big presses with considerable budgets dominate the scene. But as Crocker explains, if a corporate chain decides to stock every store with a title that doesn’t sell out, it can return the leftovers and the press is suddenly stuck with thousands of dollars of credit it now owes to the bookstore and a deluge of surplus books that already proved hard to sell in large volume.
Mass bookstore returns can easily throw off a small publisher’s entire production schedule as new debts threaten to displace new books. Now imagine that scenario playing out on a national scale with chains, university bookstores and small independent stores simultaneously triggering this sort of shock on small press revenues.
The growing primacy of monopoly retail is another stubborn problem that the pandemic has inflamed. While they are competitors, over the last two decades corporate chain stores like Chapters Indigo and Amazon have simultaneously driven prices down, squeezing out small booksellers and focusing marketing on best-selling titles with hefty promotional and distribution budgets. Publishing costs have increased, Edwards explains, but “book prices have remained flat for 20 years while the culture of discounting has affected people’s sense of the cost of a book.” Presses have borne the brunt of this shift through diminishing margins.
This erosion of margins has coincided with the rise of ebooks, a galloping digital turn that has brought new ways to make and distribute books but also additional production costs. The new costs are not offset by ebook sales, which, according to Edwards, account for only 10% of all sales. The public’s growing expectation to find books in multiple formats is one cost that publishers have to cover.
How radical presses are responding
The fissures and vulnerabilities that the pandemic laid bare have sparked the public’s interest in critical analyses of the society that produced them. “People are hungry for in-depth analysis that will help us grapple with what’s really happening now,” Fazeela Jiwa of Fernwood Publishing affirms. For this reason, readers are flocking to the websites of the indy presses I talked to, including Fernwood, Between the Lines, and ARP Books. This is a promising development for the presses, even while it introduces another new challenge in a time of jumbled supply chains.
Radical publishing is a “critique of the system as it exists,” says Crocker. Progressive publishers are unique in that they not only champion the critical ideas found in books, they are likewise attentive to how they publish those books. While they lack hefty financial resources, they do have something that large, profit-oriented concerns do not: an open disposition and a limber structure that lends itself to the kind of experimentation demanded by our strange and unpredictable times.
In keeping with their roots in progressive movements, these small presses were quick to respond to the current crisis by joining in on the flurry of solidarity initiatives that erupted everywhere the pandemic touched down.
“Publishers and sellers quickly came up with really creative ideas [like] home delivery, curating packages for people, just a huge effort,” says Edwards. Fernwood pitched in with the Winnipeg Mutual Aid Society, contributing books to be delivered as part of COVID care packages that included food, stuff for kids, and other essentials. “People loved that books were in the box!” exclaims Jiwa. Books are a tonic in hard times, ARP editor Irene Bindi tells me, “because they are the most giving of all.”
Soon after the shutdown, Crocker initiated a meeting of radical publishers to strategize about how to take action. The discussion rapidly morphed into a new transnational initiative called the Radical Publishers Alliance. The budding consortium, whose participants include presses in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., was the force behind #RadicalMay, a month-long virtual extravaganza of book launches, panels and discussions where presses could introduce audiences to books and authors, share resources and continue to nourish critical thought.
Amidst the chaos of furloughs and layoffs, child care, rent coming due, and anxiety about a world in free fall, #RadicalMay provided intensive skill-sharing sessions online. Some of these sessions involved teaching each other techniques for hosting virtual events, a skill that enriched daily online author talks that month. Readers couldn’t be there in person, but the events allowed the audience to do something we’d never imagined being able to just a few weeks ago: to take part in at least one packed book event every day for a whole month.
The people I talked to for this article don’t know yet if these actions will be enough to save small presses from the pandemic fallout. There is reason to be worried. Small presses have had an outsized cultural impact on our world and how we understand it. The books they have championed have historically been crucial to the circulation of new and radical ideas. But small presses need sales to continue to do this work. Books are sustenance, and their collective character joins us together. Buying small press books can help us deal with our virus-inflicted isolation. It is also a great way to help these catalytic institutions to endure.
Fiona Jeffries is an educator, writer, editor, and solidarity activist. She is the author of Nothing to Lose But Our Fear (Between the Lines, Zed), among other things, and is currently working on an oral history of radical healthcare provision.