COVID-19 SPECIAL

We need books and they need us

Now is the time to support local and independent bookstores and publishers, which may not have the funds to survive a long shutdown

In the post-pandemic wasteland of Emily St John Mandel's 2014 novel Station Eleven, most of civilisation has died, but a theatre troupe and symphony travel from town to town, performing Shakespeare plays. On their lead caravan are emblazoned the words: "Because survival is insufficient."

Mandel's book is one of the most luminous and hopeful entries in a genre that is bleak by definition. It looks not just at the physical apocalypse that attends a pandemic, but the emotional one too. With its quiet testimony to the importance of art, storytelling and memory, it reinforces the need for its own existence.

As the coronavirus keeps people the world over apart in isolation, books have emerged as more vital than ever. In times like this, they are escape, they are solace, they find words for the amorphous and unshakeable sense of grief that envelops us from day to day.

And yet, the industry that makes them happen has been dealt such a blow by the pandemic that it might never be the same again.

To be clear, a book is not a vaccine. You cannot eat it or use it to disinfect your hands. Bookselling is not considered an essential service in Singapore, nor should one ask to prioritise books over daily necessities.

But if one has the privilege of looking beyond immediate needs, there are other kinds of sustenance one requires to get through a crisis. In the weekend before the April 7 circuit breaker forced libraries to close, the National Library Board saw a 225 per cent jump in physical loans. Some people panic-buy bubble tea. Others, books. To each their own.

In a Facebook post marking World Book Day last Thursday, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran wrote: "Some of us read to expand our horizon, stimulate our minds and fight loneliness or boredom, while others enjoy shared readings to create a sense of community."

He added: "Our libraries are playing an even more important role now to ensure that Singaporeans remain mentally active and engaged through reading and learning, while staying at home."

Bibliotherapy remains one of the few things that can be enjoyed in much the same way as before Covid-19 struck, albeit with some delays in shipping.

Foodies must chance the vagaries of takeout and delivery. Theatre and concert-lovers must make do with online streaming. But it does not matter where you curl up with your book, because it is meant to take you somewhere else anyway.

For those who must now mind children at home all day, books are especially invaluable - not just as education, but also distraction.

The role of the book industry in a pandemic has thus crystallised into something more urgent, even as worldwide lockdowns endanger its continued existence.

Bookstores and libraries have had to close. Publishers have had to either postpone book launches or jettison new titles into a void. Not only will they make a loss on sales, but they will also not be able to cover the costs of book production that have already been incurred.

The industry depends on author events, fairs, school visits, literary festivals and more to shift copies in any significant way. None of that has survived the era of social distancing, ironically a time when people need books more than ever.

In an essay for The Guardian, author Ann Patchett, who co-owns Nashville bookstore Parnassus Books, writes: "I understand now that we're a part of our community as never before, and that our community is the world."

We need books. And the people who bring us books need us. This is the time to rally around local and independent bookstores and publishers, who were already beleaguered before Covid-19 came along and have not the deep pockets of corporations such as Amazon to outlast a long shutdown.

Last year, at least six local bookstores shut, laid low by high rents and manpower costs. That was in happier, healthier times. Now, it is uncertain how many will reopen after circuit breaker measures are lifted.

Key industry events such as the Singapore Book Fair have been cancelled. Publishers and booksellers are pivoting to online sales, though it remains to be seen if this will make up for the shortfall.

For home-grown publisher Ethos Books, sales fell by 80 per cent between last month and this month. At Asiapac Books, sales last month went down by more than 50 per cent from the year before.

Asiapac associate publisher Chong Lingying expects the coming months to be worse.

"The Government has rolled out some helpful measures," she says, naming the Jobs Support Scheme as one that has helped them retain staff, "but it's an enormous shock to the system."

Publishers such as Epigram and Ethos and bookstores such as BooksActually are offering online gift cards. Those who made early forays into digital publishing - e-books and audiobooks - are now leaning hard into this avenue, though it remains difficult to turn a profit here. Ethos, for instance, is bundling an e-book with every corresponding paperback purchase from its website.

Some writers are attempting to replace real-life events with online ones, whether teaching workshops over Zoom or ChatsActually, BooksActually's Instagram Live sessions with writers and artists.

The extended shutdown could prove a boon for online bookstores. Home-grown platforms OpenTrolley.com.sg and Experal.com have seen sales go up by 150 per cent since the circuit breaker kicked in.

When the late, legendary science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin was honoured at the 2014 National Book Awards, she spoke of how books must be seen as more than commodities, and of their role in helping us imagine a future beyond a terrible present.

"Hard times are coming," she said, "when we'll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.

"We'll need writers who can remember freedom - poets, visionaries - realists of a larger reality."

Singapore's book industry has come so far in the past few years. It has produced books that bring to light lives that have fallen through the cracks, cracks widened even further by the pandemic.

These include Teo You Yenn's essays on poverty in This Is What Inequality Looks Like (2018), Liyana Dhamirah's memoir Homeless (2019) and the stories of migrant workers told in the likes of Me Migrant (2016) and Stranger To Myself (2017), to name but a few.

There are books that articulate grief, loss memoirs such as Charmaine Chan's The Magic Circle (2017), Clara Lock's Stay Gold (2018) and Linda Collins's Loss Adjustment (2019). There are also escape routes in laugh-out-loud reads such as Sebastian Sim's Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao! (2016) and Akshita Nanda's Beauty Queens Of Bishan (2019).

Despite their Covid-19 losses, local publishers want to continue bringing out new titles. Says Ethos creative producer Justin Chia: "It is in such times that soothsayers and bringers of hope will come into being, and our publishing house must be ready for them."

Someday, when we are safe and free, there are people who will look back at these dark times and write the story of the pandemic they lived through. It will be there in history for all who come after to read.

But this is only possible if the infrastructure to create such books outlives this crisis - the writers, publishers, booksellers, readers.

Survival is insufficient. But we need them to survive.

• For a list of local publishers and bookshops that continue to operate online during the circuit breaker, go to buysinglit.sg/online

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 26, 2020, with the headline 'We need books and they need us'. Subscribe