The A to Z of a pandemic: Reading in between the lines of publishing trends

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December 27, 2020 7:15 AM

From reported narratives and doctors’ accounts to spiritual guides and even poetry, authors and publishers were racing against time to release books related to the pandemic this year

Publishing books about a calamity is a tricky exercise, carrying obvious risks for both the author and the publisher.

The Covid-19 pandemic made many businesses reassess and pivot this year. And the publishing industry was no different. Just like panicked consumers stocked up on sanitisers, gloves and masks, authors and publishers raced against time to publish ‘pandemic’ books, more specifically, accounts of the outbreak, literature on diseases and epidemics, books about viruses and so on. The published works ranged from reported narratives, doctors’ accounts to even spiritual guides and poetry.

Take, for instance, Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, a book edited by Alice Quinn. It was in March that Quinn, the former executive director of Poetry Society of America, emailed 125 poets across the US, asking them for anything they had written reflecting on life during the pandemic. About a month later, she had compiled the book with 85 poems on isolation, grief, boredom, longing and hope.

Together in a Sudden Strangeness was just one among the many books on the subject that came out this year. In fact, a new book on the pandemic cropped up almost every month this year. Several of the titles were released on a crash schedule not only to capitalise on reader interest and get ahead of the competition, but also to capitalise on public fear. Which brings us to the question: did these books even deliver quality content?

Sam Raim, senior editor, Hachette Books US, says the books offered a wider scope in a way that journalists covering the pandemic everyday couldn’t. “As much as we need to understand every little detail of Covid-19, we also lose so much if we fail to see the big picture that books are well-suited to providing,” Raim says. Hachette published a host of titles on the topic this year, including the very popular COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One by Debora Mackenzie, How Contagion Works by Paolo Giordano, The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kucharski, Deadliest Enemy by Mark Olshaker and Michael Osterholm, and The 21-Day Immunity Plan by Aseem Malhotra. Interestingly, MacKenzie, a science journalist who specialises in infectious diseases, finished writing her book in six weeks.

When asked how editorially conclusive books on the pandemic this year were, Manasi Subramaniam, executive editor and head of literary rights, Penguin Random House, says it’s hard to think of anything-particularly in the scientific context-as ‘conclusive’. “The community of scientific writers and thinkers produced literature that was helpful and nuanced. Editorially, it was illuminating to be part of any such endeavour,” Subramaniam says. Some of the pandemic-related titles published this year by Penguin Random House were The Pandemic Century by Mark Honigsbaum (which traced the journey of pandemics across a century, combining science and history, and with a chapter on Covid-19) and The Coronavirus: What you Need to Know about the Global Pandemic by Maherra Desai, Rajesh Parikh and Swapneil Parikh

While it is true that normally most publishers are nervous and apprehensive when publishing books written in less than two months, this year was quite different. “I would normally be nervous about someone writing a book in less than two months. But the books that came out this year were very different. Their research was quite detailed and incredible,” says Raim.

Publishing books about a calamity is a tricky exercise, carrying obvious risks for both the author and the publisher. Milee Ashwarya, publisher, Penguin Random House, says that such writing has to come out of extensive and solid research or a deep personal space to make it a good read. “We saw a keen interest from readers in books on the topic and on viruses and epidemics in general this year,” says Ashwarya.

Acknowledging that the hottest trend in publishing this year was ‘pandemic’ books, Sonal Nerurkar, senior commissioning editor, HarperCollins India, says, “Yes, there was a surge in books on the topic in both fiction and non-fiction. The pandemic and the social and cultural changes that came along with it were new to our generation,” says Nerurkar. HarperCollins’ pandemic titles this year included Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Coronaviruses and Beyond by Sonia Shah (which answered key questions like where do pandemics come from and how do microbes turn into deadly pathogens), Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic by Matt McCarthy, A History of Pandemics in India by Chinmay Tumbe, Anxiety: Overcome It and Live Without Fear by Sonali Gupta, among others.

Releasing books which are on-trend and in demand is an integral part of the publishing business. But an important aspect to consider is how long will the market for these books sustain? Niti Kumar, senior vice-president, marketing, digital and communications, Penguin, accepts the fact that while the books got great response in the market when they were released, consumers and readers are now slowly getting used to pandemic news and its presence in their day-to-day lives. “Consumer conversations are now shifting to more ‘normal’ areas.

However, there is still a lot that writers can offer to readers in this arena. Hence, we will still see the market for such books continuing for a while,” says Kumar. To be published by Workman in 2021, Patient Zero (a collection of case studies and medical histories of how Covid-19 and some of the world’s other most infectious diseases spread) by physician Lydia Kang and journalist Nate Pedersen is already making news.

While there is no specific cumulative number on the sale or market of such books this year, some works had a greater impact than others. For instance, Penguin’s July release The Coronavirus: What You Need to Know about the Global Pandemic by Swapneil Parikh, Maherra Desai and Rajesh Parikh received great online and offline response. Mackenzie’s COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One, published by Hachette, also received critical and commercial acclaim.

Then there was Bloomsbury’s How We Live Now by Bill Hayes (a collection of vignettes and photographs showcasing New York’s desolate streets), which also captured readers’ attention. Another popular title was A Crown of Thorns: The Coronavirus and Us by Kalpish Ratna. Accounts of doctors, health experts and ground workers also added archival and documentation value.

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