Racing to publish a book on a significant event or trend is no new phenomenon. Timelines are pulled forward—though it still takes a few months to put a book together, from writing the words to stock arriving in bookshops. Recent examples include books on the Thai cave rescue, Christchurch massacre, and forthcoming titles on the 2019-20 Black Summer. It’s no surprise then that with such a globally pervasive event such as the current pandemic, Covid-19 books are already appearing.
In the acknowledgements section of her book about Covid-19, Deborah Mackenzie states ‘this is what the book trade calls a “crash” book. Those are written in a very short time at junctures when a lot of people very much want to know about a certain issue. They are written by people who just happen to know a bit about the topic and are poised to go. That’s the position I found myself in with Covid-19.’ Robbie Egan, CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association, notes ‘This is a normal publisher response—in fact “clustering” occurs in most industries.’ It’s certainly not unusual to want to be the first, to latch onto a trend, and to make sure you’ve got what every other publisher has, too.
A timeline so far of books about Covid-19 (strictly from the point of view of medical information for the general public, and not of cultural or political analysis) begins back in April, when Paola Giordano’s essay How Contagion Works was republished in booklet form by Hachette. Following this was two of health publishing’s heavyweights, Michael Mosley and Michael Greger, both in May. Then, in June came On Pandemics by David Waltner-Towes and Outbreaks and Epidemics by Meera Senthilingam. The Pandemic Century by Mark Honigsbaum, originally published in 2019, was updated in June. In July, COVID-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened by Deborah Mackenzie was released. Come November, it would seem there is a steady flow of Covid books. Titlepage, the industry’s price and availability service, returns 90 results for ‘Covid-19’, and 29 for ‘coronavirus’. These results include a myriad of titles, many of which are only tangentially related to Covid-19, and many are listed with forthcoming publication dates, but an explosion of Covid-19 titles is nonetheless clear.
I think this is too soon. It is now only eleven months since the beginning of the pandemic in Wuhan, and mere weeks since the harsh lockdown in Melbourne ended due to low case numbers, while cases rise scarily throughout Europe. We are still very much living the pandemic, and although Australia’s restrictions have eased, the reality elsewhere in the world is stark. All of these books were published since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, but many of these books were published when the global case number was still in the low millions, compared with the 60 million cases currently reported. Since the first lockdowns in Australia, we have learned more about possible vaccines and drug trails, as well as long-Covid/post viral fatigue, brain damage, concerns of Kawasaki-like disease in children, and other effects. In Victoria, we have learned and acted on the effectiveness of masks. But the tragedy worldwide continues and will continue for some time. There is so much we don’t yet know about the future of this virus, and how governments across the world will continue to handle outbreaks. The Australian Medical Association, however, had no comment regarding whether it was too soon to publish books for the general public on Covid-19.
Writing for LitHub, Jon Sternfield recounts his experience of writing one such crash book, which focusses on the American response to the pandemic. As information changed day-by-day, he felt that writing, then going through rounds of copyedits and publicity for his book ‘recreated the experience’ of living those months. ‘It was enlightening but also harrowing because it read like a train barreling towards us at full speed. The howling whistle, the brightening light, you could actually feel all of it.’ The experience he describes is only over a matter of months—there just isn’t enough distance yet to write from a lens outside of the pandemic experience. As Egan suggests, ‘it will be far more interesting to read about the way we coped as a global species, our failures etc than it is to read about it amidst the experience.’
Although the fact-checking process for such books is rigorous, information goes out of date quickly. Michael Greger’s book alone contains over 3,000 references, taking up a good third of the weighty volume. Many of these books, (Mosley, Greger and Mackenzie’s included) follow a similar format of explaining the origins of the virus, how the virus spreads, along with some early political analysis and suggestions for avoiding the virus. Egan argues that ‘it would be risky to enter into production of books on such a potentially fast changing phenomenon’, but not that it is necessarily irresponsible to do so. With relatively undisputed information available about the origins of the virus and how it spreads, these books can accurately cover the early stages of the pandemic, but they struggle to speculate on the growing crisis.
One Covid book, Understanding Coronavirus by Paul Rabadan, already appears with an ‘updates at press’ section. Published in just nine weeks and using print-on-demand technology in market locations to avoid lengthy delays of sea freight, the updates section contains more information about hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir trails, both of which appear to already be out of date since printing in June. John Clare, Public Relations & Research Communications Manager at Cambridge University Press noted that this book will need to be updated in subsequent printings. Utilising print-on-demand technology makes this process faster than traditional publishing. Should there be any errors in these books, publishers have often included both acknowledgements from the authors claiming errors as their own (and not of any other specialists they spoke to), and also including disclaimers such as in Mosley’s ‘this is not intended as medical advice’ and ‘if you have underlying health problems or any specific health needs that may require medical supervision, or have any doubts about the information contained in this book, you should contact a qualified medical, dietary, or other appropriate professional.’
I wonder whether this is enough. Arguably, publishers have the right—both legally and morally—to publish as they choose. Their reasons for doing so may just be that they want to be the first to have a Covid book, that they expect it will lead to profit, or that they think it’s for the greater good of the reading public. Is it simply a matter of freedom of expression, that publishers can, within the law more generally, publish whatever they chose? To claim that publishers should refrain from immediate disaster publishing might be construed as censorship. In March, Nine/Fairfax made its online coverage of the pandemic free to all readers, noting that this was necessary in ‘striking a between financially supporting the newsrooms and making important public information freely available’. Andrew Stammer, director of CSIRO Publishing and convenor of the Scholarly and Journal Publishing Committee of the Australian Publishers Association, notes that scholarly journals publishing research on Covid-19 have also changed to open access, as this helps scientists collaborate worldwide. There is already a unified approach that free information helps fight the misinformation surrounding 5G, government hoaxes and vaccinations, for example. Is it therefore mistaken for publishers to assume that readers will pay for lengthier reads, even if they are highly researched? Perhaps it’s actually counter-intuitive, when newspapers and journals have already put aside their profit motives as a significant matter of public interest.
Further to ethical and profit considerations, is there even a demand for Covid books? The latest information is available online, every day, every hour. While it is in the public interest to fight misinformation and have accurate and detailed information about Covid-19 available, is the public actually interested in reading it in printed book form? Egan says, ‘in terms of actual demand, I am not aware of this existing.’ Sales figures for Covid titles have been low so far. Despite many bookshops being closed around Australia during lockdowns, most have still offered click and collect services, as well as online events, meaning customers could have still bought these titles if they were interested in reading about Covid-19 in more depth. With the Christmas selling season already upon us, no doubt readers will be drawn to giving titles that are about anything but this horrific year. Stammer, however, disagrees somewhat; ‘there is community interest in information on COVID-19 so I’m unsurprised that titles are starting to be published.’ In exploring the proliferation of scholarly publishing on Covid, David Alexander, Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction, considers that ‘it is obvious that much of what is written will be read by practically no one beyond the authors and perhaps a couple of referees.’ This may very well apply to general-audience books, too.
Kids’ books explaining the pandemic, however, seem to be a different matter. Nosy Crow, a British children’s publisher known for its warm and friendly books, led the way in April with a free book Coronavirus: A book for Children about Covid-19. Although the paperback was available for free across the UK, it would seem only the ebook has been on offer in Australia. It was updated once in July, and with the UK under harsh lockdowns throughout November, will most likely be updated again in the future. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler (known for his books with picture book queen Julia Donaldson, as well as his own work), this little book seeks to answer basic questions that children might be worried about in a style similar to many other health and wellbeing books for kids. In one of the early spreads, the novelty of the virus is gently explained: ‘Because this coronavirus is new, scientists don’t know everything about it yet. But they think that there are two main ways that people can catch it.’
With children’s lives and schooling being greatly disrupted throughout 2020—and with the distressing nature of Covid-19—it is imperative to consider how we handle this information in a clear and firm manner that conveys the seriousness without creating extreme anxiety. In this case, familiar characters might be helpful in conveying the importance of staying home and hand hygiene, such as in Shannon Hale’s The Princess in Black and the Call of the Coronavirus. Alternatively, the vividly water coloured picture book Windows by Patrick Guest and illustrated by Jonathan Bentle offers gentle ways for children to reflect on how their lives have changed recently, and to observe how their community has come together in new ways. Although the book is presented with a first-person narration, it has a clear message of connection, that we have all gone through a great change that might be hard to understand. In this sense, it is never too soon to help children comprehend and cope with a world beyond their control (and beyond their parents’ or guardians’, for that matter).
The Australian publishing industry has little regulation—no single body has a code of ethics that would bind member-publishers to greater considerations regarding disaster publishing. David Alexander outlines some criteria for presenting research on Covid-19, and this could be adapted more generally to book publishing: rigour, novelty, utility and transformation. While these terms are intended for consideration of scientific publishing, for general audience disaster book publishing, we boil this down to:
- Has this writing been thoroughly researched and methodically fact-checked? Is it likely that many of the online sources will be out of date within months of printing?
- What are the dangers, if any, of publishing too soon? Is printing corrections enough to mitigate this?
- What new research or insight does this writing bring to a general readership?
- What will this writing contribute to the project of documenting the disaster?
- And lastly, will readers be interested in reading about a disaster as it happens?
While books that have little readership can still have great impact on a small number of readers, the industry would do well to consider whether we race for gold in disaster publishing is worth it simply to have a product on offer. Waiting to publish could bring a much rounder story sometime in the future when we are not living and breathing this pandemic.
Clare Millar is a writer, editor and bookseller on unceded Wurundjeri land. Her essays, reviews and poetry have been published in Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks and Going Down Swinging, among others. She was a 2020 Poet Laureate for Melbourne City of Literature.