The New Goldrush

Publishers, like movie producers, spend a lot of time repeating themselves, following tried and true formulas in search of commercial success. Sometimes (above), they’re lazy or craven. Other times, it’s not by choice. Publishers are constrained by the interests of the human hive, which can only focus on so many things at once. So we get ten more resilience manuals and five more Trump books every week.

Rather like journalists, publishers quietly cheer for the world to get knocked off its axis, landing us in some fresh nightmare that we are compelled to think, talk, and read about. I suppose it could be a good thing that knocks the world off its axis, but bad is better. Bad news outsells good. I once had an academic rate many years of Maclean’smagazine covers on a scale of good news/bad news. We then compared the newsstand sales of good news covers against bad news covers. Bad news won hands down. It wasn’t even close, and it was reinforced by the fact that the death of Princess Diana far outsold the wedding of Princess Diana (which had otherwise done very well).

Publishers, right now, are quietly cheering for Covid-19. Not on a personal level. On a personal level, they’re worried about themselves, their families, the future of civilization, much like everyone else. But on a professional level, pandemics are gold and we’re already seeing the makings of a coronavirus-rush.

First out of the gate was Hachette. On March 19, a mere week after the world started shutting down, and while the company was still digging itself out from under the shitstorm it invited by trying simultaneously to house Woody Allen and his estranged son Ronan Farrow under one roof, Hachette signed New Scientist reporter Debora MacKenzie to write a book on how “our failure to adapt during the last 20 years of pandemics led us to this current crisis moment, and what needs to change moving forward.” It will be released “as soon as possible.”

Since Hachette’s coup, more than two-dozen corona-sagas have been announced. What follows are the descriptions of the books written by their agents, and my glib and totally unfair (I’ve read none of them) estimations of how they’ll perform. I’m using a three-star rating system, with three the highest. MacKenzie, above, gets *** because she’s addressing the heart of the matter: what-the-fuck-happened,” and how do we make it not happen again?

  • Seattle University law professor Dean Spade's sold Mutual Aid to Verso. The book’s subtitle is “building solidarity during this crisis (and the next one).” The book is about how to use the corona-moment to “organize communities and work toward transformative political change.” * (Rarely works to have an academic write off the news.)

  • Bill Hayes's sold How We Live Now to Bloomsbury. It will interweave “brief stories, vignettes, and his street photographs to capture what life is like right now in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.” ** (A lot of people will want a souvenir of the lockdown experience. This promises to be a nice one.) That’s not a Hayes photo above, but it’s a fine one.

  • Medical experts Chauncey Crandall MD and Charlotte Libov sold Fight Back: Beat the Coronavirus to Humanix. It will give us “strategies and hope for conquering the Covid-19 pandemic; outlining the latest health information on how to protect yourself, family, friends and community; how to stop the spread of infection; what to do if you are infected; and also providing information on potential treatments, vaccines, and cures.” * (Almost certain to be out-of-date by the time it is released, or too late to be relevant.)

  • Slavoj Zizek sold Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World to OR Books. * (The tabloid approach. It could sell, but blech).

  • Former New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn sold Together in a Sudden Strangeness to Knopf. It will be an “anthology of more than 80 original poems that consider our current moment, addressing the pandemic and the many emotions it has triggered: from insecurity and fear of the future, to communal feelings of solidarity and gratitude.” ** (Again, for people who want to hold on to the moment.)

  • Ivan Krastev sold Politics and the Pandemic to Penguin UK. It will look at “how democracy as we know it has changed and will be transformed in the coming months by the Covid-19 pandemic.” * (I don’t believe the author can deliver on that gigantic premise.)

  • Wall Street Journal business and finance reporter Liz Hoffman sold Going Dark to Crown. It will be “an account of the economic reckoning of the coronavirus pandemic, bringing readers inside the highest levels of decision-making at some of the world's largest companies, banks, and investment firms; revealing how business leaders used to long-term strategy were forced to make near-instantaneous decisions, some that defied conventional wisdom and that would determine the very survival of companies once thought invincible.” It was pitched as a combination of When Genius Failed and The Big Short and brought the author a big advance. *** (Hoffman is an excellent reporter, there’s an abundance of material, and Crown knows how to sell books in volume.)

  • Journalist Ethan Lou sold Field Notes from a Pandemic: A Journey Through a World Suspended to Signal Books, a division of Penguin Random House Canada. It will see its author travel “just beyond the reach of the pandemic from China to Germany to North America, watching as global society is transformed.” * (Kinda random.)

  • Pam Houston and Amy Irvine sold Air Mail: Letters of Politics, Pandemics, and Place to Torrey House Press. It will chronicle “the evolution of a fierce new friendship in a dangerously split world—penned during the coronavirus pandemic by two women writers as they shelter in place in Colorado's high country, on either side of the Continental Divide.” * (More randomness.)

  • Three academics, Jay Richards, Douglas Axe, and William Briggs, have sold The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe to Regnery, a conservative publisher. They promise “an assessment of the public response to the COVID-19 crisis by professors of ethics, statistics, and molecular biology.” Coming fall 2020. ** (Definite red-state audience.)

  • Ivan Krastev sold Seven Lessons from the Coronavirus Crisis to Ullstein (Germany). It will show the “seven ways in which democracy as we know it has changed and will be transformed in the coming months.” * (Why not eight?)

  • Brookings senior fellow Thomas Wright and Joe Biden's former national security advisor Colin Kahl have sold Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order to St. Martin’s. It will tell “the geopolitical story of Covid-19: how it was allowed to happen, why the world largely failed to cope, the long-term impact on global order, and the way back for the world.” ** (These guys are smart, St. Martin’s is a superb house, and there’s a lot to say about the fractured world order.)

  • The Atlantic writer Kathy Gilsinan sold The Helpers: America’s Pandemic in Portraits to Norton. She is aiming at a “human history of the coronavirus crisis told through stories of those on the front lines, including a retired Marine Corps general who supplies grocery and convenience stores, a young CEO of a ventilator company, an anesthesiologist who became an ICU doctor, a vaccine researcher, and a nurse.” *** (A good reporter and an approach that many people will appreciate.)

  • Axios chief financial correspondent Felix Salmon sold The Phoenix Economy to Harper Business. It will tackle “questions about how to understand a post-pandemic society and economy, leveraging the author's multidisciplinary approach to uncover and animate the trends, ideas, and stories that are expected to shape our new world.” * (Rather optimistic premise.)

  • Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow sold Voices from the Pandemic: An Oral History of Covid-19 in America to Doubleday. ** (Might be okay, or we might be sick of those voices by the time it’s released.)

  • Retail industry futurist Doug Stephens sold Resurrecting Retail to Figure 1. It will tell “the story of the unprecedented crash of an industry during the pandemic, and a potential roadmap for its rebirth; researched in real time from inside the crisis, providing a vision of how COVID-19 might reshape every aspect of consumer life, including the very essence of why we shop.” * (Another wild optimist.)

  • Lauren McKeon sold Women of the Pandemic to McClelland & Stewart. It will provide “a narrative record—through a broad spectrum of voices and experiences—of the defining role women are playing in the COVID-19 crisis, celebrating resilience and leadership but also acknowledging those forgotten and failed.” * (Maybe I’m not the audience.)

  • Vanity Fair special correspondent Gabriel Sherman sold Fever City to Simon & Schuster. It promises “an account of how New York has battled back from the coronavirus, told from multiple points of view.” ** (Good writer in the center of the universe.)

  • Adam Tooze, has sold Shutdown to Viking. It will be “an overview of the global economic shutdown in the wake of the coronavirus, placing the shock on the historical map and surveying its impact across the world.” ** (Wanted to give this one three because I like Tooze, who is not in the least optimistic about what we’ve done to ourselves. He has been ringing alarms about the economic consequences of the shutdown since day one but he’ll have to out-perform to reach a mass audience.)

  • Novelist and documentarian Gay Courter sold Quarantine! to Post Hill Press. It will be “an account of confronting coronavirus on the Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan, the successful campaign to get American passengers released from the ship, and the subsequent 14-day quarantine on Lackland Air Force base.” ** (Not sure we have the best author here but it’s a great subject and, unlike a lot of its competition, a contained story with a beginning, middle, and end.)

  • NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg has sold 2020: A Social Autopsy to Knopf. It will be “based on a multi-year global investigation to identify the social and political conditions that determined who has lived, who has died, what has worked, what has failed, and what has changed in the Covid-19 pandemic.” ** (This is a borderline three. Klinenberg can write.)

  • Margaret Peacock and Erik Peterson, a pair of historians, sold Journal of a Pandemic Year to Beacon Press. It will use “historical methodology to attempt to capture the scientific, cultural, political, and economic impact of the coronavirus on the United States in the midst of social distancing, the Black Lives Matter movement, and soaring unemployment.” * (By historical methodology, they mean close attention to the newspapers.)

  • Paul Preciado sold Wuhan is Everywhere to Graywolf. It will explore “the implications of a world beset by the coronavirus pandemic and explain that there are no politics without body politics.” * (Will sell well from the back of a truck in Portland.)

  • Literary critic Charles Finch sold What Just Happened to Knopf. It will be a “consideration of how politics, culture, and daily life have changed during the pandemic.” ** (Finch is a nice writer, and Knopf is an exceptional house, but he’ll need to work hard to deserve both stars.)

  • Outside magazine’s Brendan Borrell sold The First Shots to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is described as “a global narrative of the unfolding coronavirus vaccine race, the companies that are risking it all with billions of dollars at stake, the sometimes surprising science on which it is based, and the brinkmanship concerning access and safety playing out around it.” ** (Who knows how this one will play out but it could easily turn out to deserve another star).

  • New York Times reporter Sheri Fink sold Surge to Crown. It will examine “the scientific, political, social, and ethical dimensions of the coronavirus pandemic as it has sickened millions and created chaos in countries around the world.” ** (Not a lot to go on here except for Fink’s great rep as a science reporter and Crown’s aforementioned ability to move books in volume).

It’s an incredible harvest of books, and it will almost certainly double between now and the end of the year. I’ve left on the sidelines a dozen or two more books that include pandemic themes or chapters to make themselves topical. For instance, Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Brody Mullins and Washingtonian magazine senior writer Luke Mullins sold a book on “the evolution of corporate power and lobbying from the 1970s to the Trump administration and coronavirus pandemic.” And psychologist Janina Scarlet sold Super Survivors, “a self-help guide to overcoming trauma and other difficulties stemming from major disasters such as a pandemic.”

There is no question there will be a large market for coronavirus books. But as these things go, two or three of the best will crowd out the rest. It’s easy to hand out a couple of stars. Putting up real money is nerve-wracking.

Think of the variables. We may only be at the beginning of a long and deadly ordeal. Three hundred million people could die next year. The less developed world could be hit catastrophically (making all those New York stories irrelevant). The virus could mutate. The economic devastation might only be starting: imagine multiple years of financial shock and 30 per cent unemployment. The social rebellion against lockdown measures could explode over the winter. Or we may have a treatment or a vaccine before Christmas, along with an economic rebound.

Do you take your chances on coronavirus, or go for a sure thing like Chicken Soup for the Trump-Obsessed?