All We Have Is Each Other

Leftist book world responds to COVID-19—

Spartacus books in Vancouver. Image: Allison Jones/Wikimedia Commons

By Jessica Rose
May 28th, 2020

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different.” This quotation by author and activist Arundhati Roy introduces Sick of the System: Why the COVID-19 recovery must be revolutionary, a book of essays released earlier this month as an ebook by Toronto publisher Between the Lines. Available through a pay-what-you-can model, it’s just one of the ways Between the Lines has quickly adapted, imagining the publishing world anew.

Canada’s coronavirus shutdown began right at one of the busiest times of the year for those in the publishing industry. International spring book fairs, where many book deals are made, operated at limited capacity, were postponed, or cancelled. When COVID-19 forced all non-essential businesses to close, bookstores and libraries were among the first to shut their doors. Book festivals have cancelled or had to quickly navigate unknown digital spaces to move programming online. With fewer opportunities to promote new books and the reduced capacity of printers, many publishers have been forced to delay spring releases.

“It’s hard to get a full picture right now,” says David Bush, publicity and promotions manager and member of Between the Lines’ editorial committee, who expects we’ll see how “disruptive” the current climate will be in the coming months. “The world is changing at rapid speed.”

Like many radical publishers and literary organizations, Between the Lines’ response to COVID-19 has been swift. The essays in Sick of the System, featuring thoughtful contributions by Julie S. Lalonde, Robyn Maynard, Gina Starblanket and Kai Cheng Thom, among others, were written during the first few weeks of the shutdown, making it a revolutionary time capsule of a period dominated by great uncertainty.

The book is centred on unique perspectives not always elevated by mainstream media, challenging readers to look at our world differently by contemplating topics including violence against women during lockdown, rethinking patterns of mass incarceration, and the need for basic income and safe and affordable housing. The book makes the bold assertion: “We can seize new forms of solidarity with both hands. As the world holds its breath, revolutionary ideas have an unprecedented chance to gain ground. There should be no going back.”

“Our authors and editors each saw the opportunity and need,” says Bush of the collection, which he says has received an excellent community response so far. He’s especially happy that the pay-what-you-can model keeps the collection accessible to many. The book is expected to spur a number of themed digital events in the near future.

Digital book launches and festivals have become the norm, forcing publishers and arts organizers to familiarize themselves with digital tech quickly. The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), which was scheduled to be held in Brampton, Ontario earlier this month, announced it was going virtual in mid-March. That gave the small team at the festival, which is devoted to celebrating underrepresented authors and storytellers, just six weeks to move programming online. It worked! Over 7,000 viewers tuned into the multi-day festival’s fifth anniversary events on Zoom.

That same week, on May 4, Gary Kinsman, whose essay “Learning from AIDS activism for surviving the COVID-19 pandemic” appears in Sick of the System, participated in a panel called “Contagion, Capitalism, and Resistance.” Presented by Between the Lines and other progressive publishers PM Press and Verso Books, it was one of around 100 events at Radical May, a global and multilingual online radical book fair “running activities in as many time zones and languages as possible in order to spread the radical ideas that will change the world.” Book launches, round tables, talks, and debates are among the events that have taken place this month.

“The world has been hit by a pandemic that has shaken the foundations of capitalist society. In these uncertain times, it is more important than ever to think and discuss the ideas that will bring about the profound transformations that our societies need,” says the Radical May manifesto, which goes on to state: “The world of books — and especially critical-minded publishers — are experiencing a very difficult time internationally, given the closure of bookstores. And in difficult times, we need to unite.”

Radical May was the first project of the Radical Publishers Alliance, a coalition of progressive presses located around the globe, whose aim, according to a release, “is to lift up the voices challenging our broken social and economic systems and to come together around radical ideas for a more just and equitable world. By supporting fellow left publishing houses during this dark time, we hope to emerge from the crisis intact and more organized for the long fight against capitalism still ahead of us.”

“Radical progressive ideas are part of the solution,” agrees Bush, who says Between the Lines and publishers around the world are “interested and excited for the opportunity on how to build solidarity on a global scale.” By using technology, Radical May is raising ideas up to face global challenges. “This is new and positive,” says Bush.

Radical May is helping progressive publishers reach new audiences across the country in smaller communities while encouraging an international audience at the same time. Bush notes that events are, in many ways, becoming more accessible. “It’s an opportunity to hear from a lot of authors from right across the world,” he says. It’s also an opportunity for audiences to support and learn from international publishers.

“We don’t see ourselves in competition,” says Bush of leftist publishers’ who share values and goals. Fernwood Publishing, which has offices in Nova Scotia and Manitoba, and publishes books for those interested in social change and social justice, also participated in Radical May, sponsoring a panel on environmental transformation in times of crisis. It featured Fernwood authors Pam Palmater, Jen Gobby, and David Camfield. Earlier this month, Fernwood donated a portion of every sale to MAS (Mutual Aid Society) Winnipeg to support the most vulnerable communities in Winnipeg .

Community support has been critical for independent publishers and booksellers. In March, Lisa Greaves of Octopus Books in Ottawa said on Instagram: “Like many local independent businesses in Ottawa and across the country, we won’t get through this challenging time without the support of our community.” The community rallied when the small shop said they needed “to bring in at least $10,000 in sales by the end of the month in order to keep going.

The People’s Co-op Bookstore, Canada’s oldest independent bookstore, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this summer, has launched a GoFundMe appeal to “our community whose solidarity has seen us through similar crises in the past.” Glad Day Bookshop, the first Canadian and the oldest queer bookstore worldwide, has launched the Emergency Survival Fund, supporting LGBTQ2S artists, performers, tip-based workers, and Glad Day itself. It also launched GD TV, a new online experience that allows the bookseller to bring programming online on Zoom to audiences anywhere. Many bookstores have not only had to navigate moving events online, but also quickly build web stores to digitally categorize and sell inventory.

Event organizers and bookstores aren’t the only ones using technology to reduce geographical barriers. While, according to a BookNet Canada survey, some readers’ habits are shifting during COVID-19, many people are still participating in book clubs, albeit now virtually. The Left Book Club, a subscription-based book club that was founded by British publisher Victor Gollancz in 1936, has been hosting online book discussions, including participating in Radical May. In the U.K., Dialogue Books, which “shines a spotlight on stories for, about and by readers from the LGBTQI+, disability, working class and BAME communities,” launched the Dialogue Virtual Book Lounge on Instagram Live under the leadership of publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove.

The book world is no stranger to obstacles; we know that. With great challenges come opportunities, and for the past several weeks, the book world has once again proven to be resilient. By leaning on technology and solidarity in unprecedented ways, the industry is sparking innovation that is likely here to stay.

Jessica Rose is a writer, editor, and reviewer who has written for publications across Canada. Her book reviews have appeared in magazines including Quill & Quire, Room, Herizons, Ricepaper, This, and the Humber Literary Review. She previously covered Hamilton’s literary scene in Hamilton Magazine. Jessica is a senior editor at the Hamilton Review of Books and a founding editor of The Inlet. She is currently the books editor at This magazine and marketing manager at gritLIT: Hamilton’s Readers and Writers Festival. 

Image: Allison Jones/Wikimedia Commons