NFA Column: Independent publishing in the pandemic

The last month has been a difficult and bleak time for many of us – with lives overturned in a matter of weeks and things advancing largely out of our control, people have had to adapt at lightning speed no matter where they are or what they do.

In a collective attempt to help people fill their newfound hours at home and calm the brain in a crisis, you will have likely heard a lot of book recommendations of late on the radio and your favourite podcasts, seen shout-outs and support for new releases across social media and ogled at a whole load of lockdown reading piles. And in case you’d begun to wonder how everyone’s book habits are being maintained behind the scenes, we’re here to tell you what publishing has looked like from the point of view of our small and mighty indie that is Comma Press, and the wider Northern Fiction Alliance, since the beginning of March.

I landed back in Manchester from Amsterdam just days before lockdown was imposed at both ends of the journey, and from that week our team was separated and started remote-working for the foreseeable future. Because, as with the rest of the world, we had no pandemic plan in place, we started learning what our restrictions were on the job.

One of our lead titles, published in partnership with Hay Festival, Europa28: Writing by Women on the Future of Europe, was due to launch nationally in March with a country-wide tour and bookings at summer festivals, as well as at Hay itself. All of these events have now been cancelled and, consequently, months of planning and potential public engagement has been lost, as have the anticipated event-based book sales which make up a significant part of our income.

As bookshops began to close across the nation we turned our efforts to online retailers, as well as Hive, Waterstones, Gardners, and any independents who were still able to deliver, but soon the capacity of these companies was fluctuating and with limited access to our office, we quickly realised that fulfilling direct orders would also be a much slower process. We also became wary that our forthcoming titles might not come to physical fruition if our printers had to shut its doors, and we made the decision to push back production of two of our summer collections so that hopefully we’ll be over the worst when they are due to be published, and that events and press campaigns might still be achievable.

Over the past five weeks, the energy of the publishing industry has harnessed the internet while we’ve worked creatively and collaboratively to support our organisations and readers with new initiatives while physical engagement has become impossible.

At Comma, we’ve partnered with Charco Press, Tilted Axis, Istros Books, Nordisk Books and Peirene Press to launch a weekly Translated Fiction Online Book Club, we’ve been promoting weekly eBook deals, we’ve been sharing videos of our authors reading stories from their homes and we’ve just announced an online short story course with SJ Bradley and a new Morphologies Masterclass programme with six livestream talks from contemporary authors on the work of classic short story writers, with discounted pre-class resources and free writing prompts available. The programme begins on the 21st April with a masterclass from David Constantine, award-winning writer of five short story collections and author of the story behind Oscar-nominated film ’45 Years’, on the work of DH Lawrence. Find out more here.

Publishers within the Northern Fiction Alliance have been equally on the ball with their isolation initiatives, from And Other Stories donating 20% of each subscription they get to the subscriber’s favourite bookshop, to a virtual book tour from Bluemoose Books and a new ‘Cabin Fever Fables’ podcast from Saraband. You can find them all in our round-up.

While we’re being continually tested by the current situation, fulfilling our mission as a press has never been more important and we are so pleased to still able to deliver our work to you. We’re very happy that our April release – ‘The Book of Shanghai’, featuring ten new stories from the city’s most renowned authors – was able to be printed and is now available to order from our website or from Hive, Waterstones, or Gardners.

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @commapress for all the latest updates on our new online endeavours or like us on Facebook and check out our website for all our forthcoming titles.