“It’s a tough proposition for a non-fiction writer because the COVID-19 story is still breaking. While the pandemic is raging, any book about COVID-19 will be out of date by the time it is published,” he said.
Rather than racing to be first, Mr Heyward said Cousins’ book would look forward to how to better shape Australia in the wake of the pandemic, while Flannery’s would show how we could apply what we had learned from coronavirus to climate change.
As well as commissioning new titles, publishers are also raiding their backlists and republishing older international titles that have become unfortunately relevant, with new chapters and prefaces.
Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker’s The Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, for example, which was first published in 2017 and predicted a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19, was re-released with an updated preface in April. Similarly, Mark Honigsbaum’s 2019 book The Pandemic Century was swiftly updated to span from the Spanish flu to COVID-19 and released last week. Gift books that touch on themes of isolation have also found new resonance and F— Off Coronavirus – I’m Coloring! is always there for those seeking a creative outlet.
While most of the Australian books will be released later in the year, the presses are also rolling hot with new international releases. One of the biggest titles is from 5:2 diet creator Michael Mosley, COVID-19: What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus and the Race for the Vaccine.
But booksellers are being cautious with their orders. At Kinokuniya in Sydney, readers are leaning more towards fiction to do with plagues rather than non-fiction on the topic, as well as self-help books and hobby and craft books. There was only one COVID-19 or epidemic-related title in the store’s top 100 bestsellers last week. By mid-week, they still hadn’t sold a copy of Mosley’s book. Buyer Helene Byfield said readers might be reluctant to buy COVID-19 books because the understanding of the health crisis was still in flux and the issue had received extensive media coverage.
“Obviously, we take books that we think are going to sell. There’s so much TV and internet all over it at the moment, I don’t know that people will necessarily need a book on [coronavirus],” Ms Byfield said.
“Sometimes books get published and you wonder if it wouldn’t be better if it was an extended magazine article or podcast. People are using books to learn something new or to escape entirely, they maybe don’t necessarily want to dwell in it.”
Literary agent, publicist and author manager Brendan Fredericks said he would be reluctant to take on a COVID-19 book because of the fear readers and journalists were fatigued by the subject.
A big fiction line-up – including new novels from Australian authors Craig Silvey, Richard Flanagan and Trent Dalton – will also compete for readers’ attention later in the year.
Mr Fredericks said a strong title and cover, high-profile author, a unique angle and good writing would help some books rise to the top of the to-read pile. Less high-profile books might also be aided by the rush of releases.
“There is a saturation point. I think all of the COVID-19 books will get coverage. Coming out around the same time, what will happen is they will all get clumped together with combined reviews, combined panels – it will be an arm wrestle for one of them to dominate,” he said.
“Although no book is going to get a clear run at the end of the year everyone is going to be jostling. Are we still going to be interested in COVID-19? Will we still want to read books when summer comes?”
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.