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How Have Publishers Survived the Pandemic? ‘It’s Kind of a Miracle’

The virus changed reading habits, writing ambitions and BC’s book biz. Here’s how.

andrea bennett 9 Aug

andrea bennett is an editor with The Tyee and the author of Like a Boy but Not a Boy (Arsenal Pulp), a CBC Books’ pick for the top Canadian non-fiction of the year and one of Autostraddle’s best queer books of 2020.

When the pandemic arrived, it hit the book business hard, closing stores, tying up titles in backed-up warehouses and threatening the survival of publishers — including British Columbia’s vibrant sector of smaller presses.

A year and half later, the virus that altered every corner of the economy has spurred changes for publishing. One effect: More of us are reading and in different ways. Another: More of us are writing books, which has produced a surge in self-publishing.

And B.C. presses have proven more resilient than many expected.

Prospects appeared grim in the summer of 2020, recalls Heidi Waechtler, executive director of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia. “People were reporting about 50 to 75 per cent off of where they would normally be.”

By November 2020, Waechtler says, that estimate had improved some: B.C. publishers were projecting an average 30 to 40 per cent sales decline for 2020.

On the whole, publishers saw an increase in direct sales made through their websites, an increase in sales for e-books, especially for those sold to schools, and an overall decrease in bookstore sales — though indie bookstores weathered the storm much better than chains.

“Chapters Indigo returned a ton of books,” says Laraine Coates, assistant director of marketing and business development at UBC Press, which publishes about 60 titles a year. “Their sales just plummeted our overall sales numbers during the pandemic. A lot of their stores are in Ontario, which was closed for a very long time.”

“But actually indie stores, looking at it, were not down that much,” Coates adds. “Which was, again, quite a surprise to us.”

Books marooned and returned

“It was very much a roller-coaster during the year,” says Brian Lam, publisher of Arsenal Pulp Press — who, full disclosure, published my most recent book.

“The first four months of the pandemic were really hard, because that was the period when the bricks and mortar retail shut down,” Lam adds. “And then our distributor was having cash flow issues. So they weren’t paying us, because the majority of their clients weren’t paying them. There were a few rough spots where it was difficult.”

Some boxes of Arsenal’s spring 2020 titles, Lam said, were returned from bookstores unopened.

But the press, which publishes about 20 new titles a year, was able to rally — thanks, in part, to a publishing program that includes a lot of BIPOC-authored and LGBTQ+-authored books, and to having two books included in Canada Reads.

“I can say now, a year and a bit later, our fiscal year ended in May, and our sales actually increased over the previous year,” says Lam. “So we made up the losses.”

Pivoting to digital and direct

Andrew Wooldridge, publisher of children’s book press Orca, which offers around 95 titles a year, says that the initial sales drop-off in spring of last year was “a little bit scary.”

School orders, for example, dried up almost immediately as schools moved to online learning. Soon, though, demand shifted from hard copy to digital.

“We found that we had all of a sudden everybody saying, 'My books are locked in the library, how do I access them?'” Wooldridge says.

“I think for the school market, it’s kind of pushed them over the edge a bit in terms of realizing that digital is okay.”

Heidi Waechtler, head of the Association of Book Publishers of BC, says no members went broke and now job postings are growing. Photo via Twitter.

All three presses shifted the way they marketed and sold their books to readers during the pandemic.

Orca, Woolridge says, has moved from direct mailing catalogues to communicating online with readers and book purchasers. Similarly, UBC Press, which tended to do a lot of direct sales to readers at conferences, pivoted to online communication with their readership.

Arsenal Pulp, Lam says, saw a 400-per-cent increase in direct sales through their website in the first four months of the pandemic.

A wave of new manuscripts

Surveys early in the pandemic showed the narrowing of activity options had Canadians spending more time reading. At the height of stay-at-home health measures, submissions to presses also increased.

“We’ve always counted on the slush pile,” Lam says. “Jonny Appleseed, Butter Honey Pig Bread, The Woo-Woo, those all came through the slush pile. So we pay a lot of attention to what comes through the mail.”

“Recently, we just signed a queer YA novel,” Lam adds. The success of the press’s BIPOC and queer authors has led to more submissions in the same vein, a process Lam says is “gratifying.”

Not all would-be authors chose the traditional route — self-publishing saw a bump during the pandemic, too.

The West Coast office of Friesens, which handles traditional printing and offers a self-publishing service, told the Vancouver Sun they’d seen a 60-per-cent increase in new authors over the past year and a half.

This is an increase also witnessed at Blurb, an independent publishing platform that facilitates book creation, on-demand printing, book distribution and offset printing.

“There was a 25 per cent increase across the board,” says Daniel Milnor, a creative evangelist with the company.

“I think what COVID did is, very simply for self-publishers, it gave them the time to focus on projects,” Milnor adds. “We all love to say how easy it is to make a book. But in actuality, to make a book that you really care about, it takes a fair amount of concerted effort and critical thinking and time.”

Government support proved critical

For many Canadian publishers, provincial and federal support was also key. The majority were able to take advantage of the federal wage subsidy program, as well as funding top-ups and advances through the Canada Council, the BC Arts Council and Canadian Heritage. These supports, Waechtler says, were “instrumental.”

The ABPBC also received its own supplement through Canadian Heritage, Waechtler says, which was helpful — for a time, the association wasn’t sure if they were going to lose members who wouldn’t be able to afford to renew their memberships or pay for advertising or professional development.

“Fortunately, we didn’t lose any publishers over the last year,” Waechtler says. “And I’ve actually seen more B.C. book publishing jobs posted in the last year than I have in previous years.”

Still, the pandemic highlighted industry vulnerabilities that are prompting conversations amongst book publishers and book publishing organizations.

“If you look at things that are tangentially related to the publishing world, things like shipping, labour, those markets are still completely and utterly in flux,” Milnor says.

Pressures on the pulp and paper industry, for example, have led to increases in production costs for books.

Publishers are also finding it harder to book press time — a combination of supply and demand at the printer, supply chain issues and plant closures.

851px version of OrcaAndrewWooldridge.png
‘We’re going to see a whole bunch of knock-on effects from the pandemic,’ says Orca publisher Andrew Wooldridge. ‘Our global supply chain is definitely one of them.’ Photo via Orca.

“I’ve never seen it like it is now, where we can order a book today and have it delivered at the end of January,” says Wooldridge. “Which is fine if you’re planning that far out. But if you need to reprint it could be a disaster.”

This has led Orca to print offshore in some cases, Wooldridge says — but even then, shipping costs have “gone through the roof” and arrival dates are being pushed back, too.

“I think we’re going to see a whole bunch of knock-on effects from the pandemic that we haven’t thought about yet,” Wooldridge adds. “Our global supply chain is definitely one of them.”

‘Working towards a more efficient system’

The flood of book returns at the beginning of the pandemic and the increase in direct sales have also resparked industry conversations about bookstore returns policies, and the possibility of instating a lower-cost book mailing rate in Canada.

“There have been discussions like, is this something that we need to revisit? You know, are booksellers open to the idea of potentially not being able to return books?” Waechtler says.

“I’ve heard a lot of publishers talking about it,” Coates says. “The U.K. did a huge study, and they’ve actually implemented a big rule book about how return should work. And apparently it has really helped.”

“Because it’s not only an issue in terms of what it does to a publisher’s business, it’s a sustainability issue in terms of the environment,” Coates adds. “Shipping books back and forth, and back and forth, it’s just terrible burning all that gas, and it takes a lot of time. It’s so inefficient. Working towards a more efficient system is something that we’re really talking about right now.”

When it comes to the book mailing rate, Waechtler says many book publishers would like to see a lower-cost shipping rate for booksellers, similar to the one libraries can access for inter-library loans. “The cost to ship a 250-page book across Canada can be similar to the cost of the book,” she says.

“It’s great that we can do direct sales and reach people directly. It’s also very expensive,” Coates adds. “The fact that Amazon has their little shipping monopoly, we just can’t compete with it. We can’t offer free shipping because we can’t afford it.”

“That’s something that, as an industry we’re really going to have to advocate for,” Coates says.

But, Coates says, she has been heartened to see readers thinking more about buying local, and supporting indie publishers and bookstores.

“In the end,” Coates says, “the loyalty of our readers really kept us afloat during a tough time.”

Daniel Milnor of Blurb says he’s impressed by just how resilient readers, writers and publishers have been, given the pressures of the pandemic.

“I look around, and I’m kind of amazed that publishing in general is still functioning at the level it is,” he says.

“It’s kind of a miracle in some ways.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus, Media

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