When the COVID-19 pandemic caused bookstores across the United States to close indefinitely, many publishers decided to push back select publication dates for their titles in order to give them the best chance to succeed in the marketplace. Three publishers shared in interviews how they went about making these decisions and how they’ve approached marketing newly released titles during this time.
Emily Bestler, EVP and publisher of Simon & Schuster imprint Emily Bestler Books, said that every Simon & Schuster imprint has changed some publication dates. The process started in mid-March, after the publisher made the decisions for workers to stay at home. Bestler said that since demand for books by well-known authors has been high during the pandemic, some books had their publication dates moved up, such as novel Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner (Atria), which was published two weeks early, on May 5. Other Atria titles shifted many months forward, such as essay collection Keep Moving by Maggie Smith, which moved from May 5 to October 6, and memoir Everybody (Else) is Perfect by Gabrielle Korn and nonfiction Bad Medicine by Charlotte Bismuth, which both moved from June 2020 to January 2021 publication dates.
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“For books whose authors we planned to tour, it made sense to move some of those back and wait for travel restrictions to ease, and stores to reopen,” said Bestler. “Certain non-fiction titles dealt with subjects that would perhaps be overlooked during this period or were heavily dependent on media coverage which is no longer available, at least for the time being.” Bestler said the process was done “in collaboration with production, publishing, sales, publicity, editorial and author and agent.”
Kate Gale, Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, said they moved publication dates for three of their titles, with We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth by Jennifer Risher and memoir In the Key of New York City by Rebecca McClanahan moving from May to September, and novel Sugar, Smoke, Song by Reema Rajbanshi moving from June to August. Red Hen also consulted with authors about the decision; Gale noted, “Most authors wanted their books to stay on schedule with the exception of the two memoirists, who were grateful to be shifted to the fall season.”
As for how they decided on the new dates, Gale said, “The trick was to release them early enough to avoid the wash of election coverage, while not crowding our fall season with too many simultaneous publications.” For the memoirs, Gale said that holding in-person book events was a key part of their marketing plans, hence the new September dates. “It’s harder to get a conversation going about a nonfiction book without an audience,” she explained.
Brett Cohen, President and Publisher of Quirk Books, said they delayed five books, two from their spring list, children’s picture book Doctor Who: The Runaway Tardis and romantic comedy Siri, Who Am I? by Sam Tschida, as well as three summer titles, YA fairy tale adaptation Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston, the paperback release of The Remaking by Clay McLeod Chapman, and young adult novel This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey. These decisions were made in conjunction with authors and their agents.
In mid-March, as the company transitioned to working from home, Cohen said, “We made a quick assessment of what the marketplace looked like at that moment, where it was likely headed and what each individual book needed.” Some titles moved a mere month later, such as Doctor Who: The Runaway Tardis, originally slated for a May release, which was shifted to June, while Siri, Who Am I? moved from May to January 2021 and This is Not the Jess Show moved from August to November. The latter were the publisher’s biggest moves, since they were debut authors with high-concepts, noted Cohen, and “were tied to our ability to effectively market the book and generate the appropriate amount of buzz around the book’s release.”
All of the publishers interviewed for this piece said that they’ve expanded their outreach efforts for titles whose publication dates haven’t changed and have been released during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gale said, “Our whole team is working full-time to serve our community with ongoing virtual events, online book ordering, and virtual poetry workshops in our local schools.” Additionally, they’ve expanded into online events, such as virtual series Red Hen Press Poetry Hour with The Broad Stage and Hen House at Home reading and conversation series on their YouTube channel.
Quirk Books’ marketing team has focused on generating new content tied to recent releases, such as a horror theme week in which front list authors were in conversation online discussing their titles, and will continue weekly themes into June. Simultaneously, Cohen said, “We were discounting their backlist and our other horror ebooks and promoting other free related resources we had like book club reading guides or downloadable activity kits.” He said they saw major success with the April 7 release of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix, which debuted on the New York Times NYT bestseller list and sold television rights to Amazon AMZN .
Cohen believes this shows that “Great content can elevate above the noise of the pandemic.” However, he also noted that Hendrix has been building an audience over the last six years. “Marketing momentum is always critical to a book’s release,” said Cohen, which is a large part of what drove the decision to delay the five titles to best accommodate each’s particular marketing needs.
Cohen is hopeful that positive outcomes can arise from the changes wrought by the pandemic. “I’d like to think that the moves we are making now are short-term adjustments that will be learning opportunities that can help us make the longer-term adjustments,” he said. “Whether it’s a shift in what content people want or how we promote books in this new environment or where people shop for books or how we engage with readers, retailers and partners, we are doing valuable and creative work now to meet consumers where they are and it’s laying the groundwork for what future consumer engagement might look like.”