The Business of Books in a Hurricane

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The fallout from Sandy has been pretty widespread, industry-wise, since most industries tend to have some presence in New York City, and if nothing else, many, many employees have been displaced from offices and have had to figure out temporary office situations (this is true for the Atlantic Wire office, for instance).

In the book publishing industry, Sandy's impact has been felt, with downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn stores closed—tens of thousands of dollars in damages reported for some, like powerHouse Arena in DUMBO—as well as struggles to regain basic functionality (electricity!) and get things moving again in the business of publishing in general. There are the bookstores, the libraries, the publishers, the editors, the publicists, the agents, the writers. As with the rest of us, this week of post-hurricane recovery has meant putting "normal" things on hold—but for a book author, that might come at the cost of the rising momentum of a new release. For others, it means being unable to access all the information needed to gauge sales, or best-seller status. Beyond the devastating loss of many thousands of dollars in books, some bookstores have had to close temporarily and to postpone or cancel readings. Writers are still waiting for advance or royalty checks, money to pay their rent. A number of writers were stuck in Texas for days following last weekend's Texas Book Festival, when their flights back to the city were postponed or canceled. Some still haven't been back.

Recommended Reading

Of course, this suffering is both a kind of luxury (it could be far worse, and every industry is feeling its own pain right now) as well as emblematic of the overall impact of a major storm on a city full of businesses that rely on such modern things as, you know, electricity. But in the case of a book, which one may have worked on for years and which is finally out, the sweet spot of publicity is now—and yet, in the wake of a hurricane, people are dealing with much greater problems what what to read. Books, like a marathon, seem a luxury for better days, and self-promotion seems downright yucky, if not near impossible given transportation and other woes. This is in some ways a conundrum that transcends careers—how do we stay sensitive and help others while continuing to protect our own ambitions, goals, and dreams? What if you worked for two years of your life on a book, and the moment it came out, a hurricane quashed its promotion, and possibly the book itself? That, like Sandy, would stink. Timing is everything, in publishing, too.

Brooklyn resident Andrew Blackwell, author of Visit Sunny Chernobyl (And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places), was impacted by Sandy travel-wise more than anything else, his book promotion having been largely completed in the early fall. While he was scheduled to return to the East Coast from the Texas Book Festival on Monday, his flight, like those of many writers, was canceled. When he rescheduled for Tuesday, that flight was canceled too. "At that point, I bought a one way ticket from Southwest for Tuesday (or was it Wednesday?), and canceled my ticked on United altogether. Then my Southwest flight was canceled! I was starting to get worried that I wouldn't get back in time to leave on my next work trip, to Boston," he told The Atlantic Wire by email. "So I just rerouted my Southwest flight to Boston, where I arrived last night. In short: I still haven't made it home." Echoing a commonly held feeling of being away from one's own New York City in times of trouble, he said, "Although Austin was really pleasant, it has felt just terrible (from a hometown solidarity point of view) being stuck away from New York with all of this happening." I asked whether he anticipates any thematic connections with his book and the storm aftermath—interviews about diesel spills, for instance. He told me, "I'm probably more interested in what has been kicked up by the flooding of the Gowanus Canal (which is a beloved spot for me). I'm not so much an environmental reporter as a nature writer who writes about polluted places. Or a travel writer who writes about pollution tourism? Or maybe just a memoirist who wanted to smell for himself what's wrong with the environment." We'll check back with him for Sandy-specific updates when he finally returns to the city.

Then there's the case of powerHouse Arena, where, as The Observer's Michael Miller wrote yesterday, losses are estimated to be "in the several tens of thousands of dollars" after "a 14′ rise in water level ... resulted in an inundation of 28″ throughout our 5000 sf main floor," per an email from powerHouse (an image from the store post-Sandy at right). "Tubs of kids books, event copies, stationery and totes were lifted off the Arena steps and sunk; cabinets bobbed in the rushing onslaught; within 20 minutes the Arena was flooded and then emptied, breaking out the front door glass window and taking more than a few items along the way." Capital New York's Jed Lipinski adds today, according to powerHouse's CEO Daniel Power, that the store "probably suffered around $40,000 in damages. Unfortunately, like a lot of businesses that got swamped on the block, we didn’t have flood insurance.” A fund-raiser is planned at the store on November 17; check the Tumblr Sandy Hates Books for more information. Being off of Water Street comes with a whole new meaning now.

Jami Attenberg, whose book The Middlesteins came out on October 23 and who was amid a promotional storm when the actual storm intervened, told me she was struggling with a Sandy-induced inability to communicate with the broader world and to figure out how she could help conflated by the fact that her laptop had recently died and she doesn't have TV. "Every piece of news I'm getting is on my phone," she said, "It's hard to get a full grasp of what's happening. I'll go out and get the paper, and it's like, that was last night." Twitter has helped, she said; when I spoke to her yesterday she said she planned to see how she could volunteer to help some of the elderly who are currently isolated and without power. As for her book tour, she had to cancel her book party scheduled for last night at Housing Works in Manhattan, and her reading at an Upper West Side Barnes and Noble scheduled for Monday has been canceled as well.

It's not surprising that there are technical aspects of a book release and what comes after that just can't happen the way they should, and would, in normal circumstances. "My job has really been social media this whole [promotional] time. I can't do the readings part of that right now; I can do social media on my phone, but it's very one-sided," Attenberg said. "I can't be engaged in conversations. You have to just hope people are enjoying it." This has meant for some surprises, some of them good: "I found out I was on the New York Times bestseller list—No. 25—[my publisher] only had access to certain databases because of the hurricane, and we had no idea I'd be on it." And some of them less pleasant. With publishing offices closed, "I'm waiting for a check so I can pay my rent. Everybody's waiting for the next thing to happen."

Attenberg managed to get back into New York City from the Texas Book Festival on an early flight last Sunday—"Everyone was like, thank God we got on this plane," she said—and plans to fly to the Midwest for the continuation of her book tour on Tuesday. But it was important to be connected to New York in times of trouble, she said. From Austin, "I flew to Newark, changed my clothes out of my suitcase and went to Queens where my brother lives. We just hung out for two days. We had a dance party during the hurricane—we were dancing through doom."

Meanwhile, Jessica Grose, author of the recently released novel Sad Desk Salad, told me, "I'm sort of a weird case. I didn't have anything scheduled after mid-October because I am so pregnant and didn't want to be on the hook for anything in case the baby came early. Nothing scheduled = nothing cancelled." Julie Klam, whose Friendkeeping came out October 25, had her reading at Book Court, scheduled for last night, postponed until next Thursday. Mostly, though, Sandy "interfered with publicity momentum. In New York, no one was looking to do stories on new books, for example, and many places were not even operational (TV shows, etc...). My publisher is still without power so everyone is working from home, but that's life. In my case, I knew that all publicity for my book would be a bit difficult until the election was over, so I was kind of planning for it. This awfulness fell within the same time."

Klam added that the hurricane has made the already strange business of self-promotion even stranger: "I am personally very uncomfortable with self-promotion, so in some ways, I'm always worrying about how I come across, like if I tweet about my book in the morning will the people who haven't had coffee yet be irritated and think I'm a braggy, annoying dummy? Of course, I live in New York City and my life and the lives of my friends were heavily affected, and in the end, unless you're the worst person in the world, you have to care more about the lives of people than your personal gains. And I'm not the worst person in the world ... maybe third or fourth." As Attenberg added, "I feel really lucky that I'm fine, and I don't even know how appropriate it is to talk about my book while people are really suffering," she said. While a book may be two years of one's life as a writer, in the wake of a hurricane, "It also seems so minor."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.