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Guest Post-Publishing in the Time of Plague

by | Jun 2, 2020 | 0 comments

By: Vince Burns, Vice President, Editorial ABC-CLIO

The older this historian gets, the more I realize that I much prefer to read about significant historical events than survive them. After the elation at the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the shock of 9/11 and the slow-motion tragedy of the Iraq War brought grinding sadness. Then, the financial crisis of 2008 and its fallout cast a shadow on our national good feelings over the election of the first African American president. On a personal level, negotiating a cross-country family move just as the job and real-estate markets fell through the floor, all while my current employer (Westport, Connecticut’s Greenwood Publishing) was bought by my future employer (ABC-CLIO), presented more challenges and sleepless nights in 2008 than I care to remember. But, all that was nothing compared to a once-in-a-century plague. From February to April the news got worse daily, testing any publisher originally approaching 2020 optimistically. Our collective twin worries were the virus’s blow to local and global health and its impact on our beloved libraries and the book-publishing world that depends on them. At first we wondered when libraries would return to “normal”. Now we wonder if libraries and even the research university itself will ever look the same, post-plague. But others in the Charleston Conference community are better qualified to contemplate the future academic library. For me as an historian and publisher, our collective back list of books rich in their descriptions and analyses of past pandemics has provided both solace and meaning amid our current crisis. This experience underlines the importance of libraries’ age-old mission of collecting and making available ideas and research to the public, students, and specialists. Titles and subjects that seemed arcane and unnecessary yesterday are anything but today. This applies just as much to detailed instructions on creating a victory garden in your backyard or Daniel Defoe’s description of plague-ravaged 17th century London. 

What seemed like quirky or obscure titles—Daily Life during the Black Plague (Greenwood, 2006) and Protecting Your Business in a Pandemic (Praeger, 2008)—have new relevance. When we reexamined our Encyclopedia of Pestilence, Pandemics, and Plagues (Greenwood, 2008) recently, we were surprised to see that Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had written the foreword. 

As the first signs of pandemic began to appear, professor and physician Laura Kahn at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs got in touch with us: “would Praeger be interested in a paperback reissue of Who’s in Charge: Leadership during Epidemics, Bioterror Attacks, and Other Public Health Crises (Praeger, 2009)” with a new foreword for the current moment. 

Then another book found renewed relevance and attention, so much so that Amazon’s overloaded servers and fulfillment infrastructure couldn’t keep it in stock: Josh Loomis’s Epidemics: The Impact of Germs and Their Power over Humanity (Praeger, 2018). Not surprisingly, Josh’s phone has been ringing since March with press inquiries, including one from the New Yorker. In May Josh’s views featured prominently in an important article on the virus’s class component and how it has morphed from what was at first a “rich man’s disease,” to one that is now ravaging the poor, in a grim repetition of the customs of time immemorial: “throughout history, the rich would wall in the poor to let disease wipe them out.” Publishers—perhaps all of us—worship the new and fresh, the marketing of a frontlist title can be meticulously planned and executed, but the unfolding pandemic has reminded us that centuries of wisdom and experience can be found in on our collective physical and virtual shelves. Earlier societies were more familiar with plague than we are, their observations and accounts have much to teach us as we face the future. 

And what of our non-pandemic books? Like other publishers we’ve grappled with, whether sticking to the year’s original publication schedule (180 titles across all imprints) still made sense in the time of plague. But as libraries closed and Amazon began to struggle to ship and stock books in a timely manner, the right choice was clear. We decided to push back pub dates for many of our April, May, and June titles to later in the year in order to give them the best possible chance to succeed in a library market that can digest them, both physically and from a marketing perspective. Apart from physical books, we are crossing fingers for a bump in our ebook business. On the subscription side, we’re pleased that our all-in-one social studies digital solutions are a fine fit for (suddenly) distant learners and teachers. 

The New Yorker article (“Pandemics and the Shape of Human History”) that quoted Josh Loomis also referenced another of our books, the classic Colombian Exchange (1972) by the late great Alfred W. Crosby. Crosby was the first to understand the importance of the biological interplay between the New and Old Worlds, the most tragic element of which were the infectious diseases brought to the Americas—most terribly smallpox—which wiped out nearly the entire native population, clearing the way for Spanish conquest and colonization. Although “the Columbian exchange” is now an essential term for scholars and students, in the early 1970’s no other publisher would take a chance on Crosby’s research and original ideas. Before his death, Crosby told the Smithsonian how his masterpiece came to be published: “publisher after publisher read it, and it didn’t make a significant impression. . . . I gave it up. And then a little publisher in New England wrote me and asked me if I would let them have a try at it, which I did.”

The “little publisher in New England,” of course, was Greenwood Press. Greenwood is now part of the ABC-CLIO family of imprints and Crosby’s revolutionary book remains both a treasured part of our list and a staple of the college curriculum in humanities, helping to invent and then define the field of environmental history. The story of the book’s journey to publication should be a lesson to all of us to pay attention to the unconventional outsider and to always have a healthy skepticism for conventional wisdom, wherever it manifests itself. 

One of Crosby’s key points is that, all else being equal, the native populations of the Americas on their own would eventually have been able to fight off smallpox—we all know now how that works, herd immunity and so on. But for the Aztecs, Inca, Maya, Caribs, and Arawak it wasn’t that simple: the new diseases were brought by an invading army bent on domination. Withstanding both the microbial and human invaders was beyond any people’s capabilities. Perhaps that’s a warning for us: as we come out of quarantine, the second wave may take a form we haven’t yet considered. Such is the solace of reading and publishing history in a time of plague. Will we eventually publish a book entitled Daily Life during COVID-19? I don’t know, but I think I’d rather not be involved. 

Finally, let it be known that the relatively trivial tasks of juggling publication dates, getting the most from a newly 100% remote workforce, and dealing with Amazon’s foibles are of little significance compared to the heroic efforts of our frontline workers. Future histories of our plague must place them and their stories front and center in all accounts, from the tragic early warning of Dr. Li Wenliang, to the millions of essential grocery, delivery, and medical workers who have stepped up to the challenge so the rest of us could carry on in our separate journeys towards the post-pandemic “new normal,” whatever shape that may take.


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