Publishing is a risky business. People risk their life savings, their homes, their freedom, and their lives on writing and publishing books they genuinely believe in, and it is under threat in a way it never has been. It is, however a robust industry, books survive in times when other products suffer, but we need help and support from our governments.
Seven months into a global pandemic and we reflect on how the publishing industry has responded to these unprecedented times, which have presented a multitude of challenges and obstacles but have also presented everyone — publishers, authors, and readers with some opportunities. As with everything, there has been no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to an industry response, and there have been vast disparities in government support around the world for the sector.
If we cast our minds back to mid-March as the pandemic took its grip on the world, every aspect of our lives was turned upside down. No longer could we hug a friend or convene in a bar. We couldn’t exercise or go to our place of employment. But perhaps more importantly, education came to a stand-still, medical procedures and screenings were cancelled, and physical bookstores were closed for the foreseeable future. The impact on the publishing industry was felt immediately. Publishing is integral to global society, be it the education of the nation, the dissemination of scholarly research, and the beating heart of the cultural world, and suddenly we were without access. The immediate response was to ‘go online’, as with other services including grocery shopping and medical appointments — and we were fortunate that there was an online option where for many professions and services such as cafes, and hairdressers, this simply wasn’t an option.
The digital divide was evident from an early stage. In more developed countries, online physical bookselling is more developed than others, the e-book and audio-book industries are much further ahead in some markets, and the education system is much more digital than in lesser developed markets. But everyone had to be creative and find solutions. The situation highlighted what many of us had taken for granted, the role of teachers, the public library as an institution, and access to books. And we were now deprived. Even in the more digitally developed markets, online retailers were struggling to fulfill book orders, prioritising ‘essentials’ above books and independent retailers suddenly had to be creative in working out how to get books to readers (mainly via bicycle deliveries it emerged). What the global industry did learn very quickly is that we should no longer rely on a print ecosystem, and no matter what stage the digital development is in a country; it must be expedited.
General challenges were overcome by most; working from home, hosting virtual meetings, and ensuring the general health and safety of the workforce. Adapting to the virtual office quickly became the norm and attention turned to the end-user; the reader, the learner, the educator, the researcher to ensure that their needs were being met as much as possible. Educational publishers started to give away many of their digital resources and children’s publishers, notably relaxed copyright rules around online storytime activities. Book fairs and literature festivals went online, giving authors much broader, more global audiences. The reader was treated to myriad virtual cultural activity whilst the publishers and festival organisers struggled with a sudden loss of income streams.
Whilst the digital book has grown in popularity, especially through public libraries, this trend of reduced revenues has been felt the world over, putting at risk many independent publishers of all genres, as well as physical retail outlets who rely on visits from the public. We wait to see what the real impact will be on research publishers who are seeing reduced income from university fees, a decline in research funding, and for learned societies who rely on their meetings as a way of making money which has suddenly evaporated. The impact on educational publishers, who are faced with shrinking budgets from schools, universities, and students, and for trade publishers, especially those who haven’t yet made the leap into a digital product, how they will find the funding to invest and stay afloat at the same time, remains to be seen.
Whilst we are focused on the impact of the pandemic, we should not forget that life still carries on with its daily grind. In many parts of the works, publishers have been plagued by war, explosions, weather disasters, and other natural and man-made obstacles that must be faced on top of the pandemic. Publishing is a risky business. People risk their life savings, their homes, their freedom, and their lives on writing and publishing books they genuinely believe in, and it is under threat in a way it never has been. It is, however a robust industry, books survive in times when other products suffer, but we need help and support from our governments. The level of national response has been hugely varied across the world with many industries receiving no support at all.
As we enter phase 2 of the pandemic, predicted to be worse than the first phase, we reflect on the past 7 months and pause for thought about how to face the challenges ahead. We will continue to put our authors and our readers at the forefront of what we do and continue to believe in what we do and be passionate about our industry. Changes are needed, and lessons have been learned; a digital strategy is a must for anyone in the industry, and we need to continue to innovate. Publishing is an essential industry, and we will survive and in time, return to thriving.
Emma House is the Founder of Oreham Group, a consultancy for the international publishing community. She can be reached on email@example.com