The publishing industry at the time of pandemic

As they say, we snooze longer and only then get to sleep later, and wake up tired before we catch up with our daily routine. So is the story of the publishing industry these days. After the initial shock of the pandemic, the industry bigwigs have now woken up and are adapting and experimenting new ways to keep their business going. They are experimenting with myriad ways to stay connected with readers while balancing their own operations to cope with the different stages of the lockdown that have been extended with phased duration nation-wide.

03 Dec 2020 | By PrintWeek Team

Som Nath Sapru

Bookstores nationwide have curtailed their activities, such as book discussions, meet the author, and have closed down coffee counters due to the lack of visitors. No doubt editorial activities have continued at a steady pace, whereas sales, printing and production has completely stopped. Marketing activities have proliferated but only through social media and online promotions.

Undoubtedly, Covid-19 has hit publishing in unimaginable ways, due to the nation-wide lockdown, forcing publishers, writers and readers to alter the ways the consume print.

Initially, in the beginning of the phase of the lockdown, even the access to daily newspapers, news-magazines was minimal. Around that time, the newspaper industry started sending WhatsApp messages explaining readers how safe it was to handle newspapers and the method how all these newspapers are sprinkled with sanitising solutions at every stage of processing and printing.

The lockdown has also affected parts of the publishing business, such as, new title releases, promotions, launches, etc. Undoubtedly, some publishers are using innovative methods to keep authors and reading communities engaged through social media. Many prominent publishers, especially mentionable is Oxford University Press (OUP), have extended their cooperation in online teaching and have offered free access to its learning resources, for both schools and higher education streams through its online teachers training modules and webinars. OUP’s ‘continue learning @ home’ initiative is aimed at creating a home learning environment to ensure that the delivery of education is not disrupted, resulting in increase of sales in eBooks and digital products.

The kind of overall losses faced by various book and periodical retailers is unimaginable. Some bookshops in cities across the country are forced to shut shop for good due to a sharp fall in their sales. I am told that it has crashed by 15-25%. That’s an average drop of about 25% across online and offline retailers. Due to the closure of malls and the considerable reduction in the footfall in airports, sales of books and periodicals in such locations are almost negligible.

Om Books International, which runs a chain of bookstores across the country, had to close their stores temporarily in Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Gurugram due to the closure of malls. Many retailers are awaiting waiver in their rentals during this exceptional lockdown period.

The pandemic has created a huge ‘publishers dilemma’, as it is going to make an impact on the publishers’ finances due low sales online and negligible footfall at real book stores across the country, as major bookstore chains are barely placing new orders, and airport bookshops have cut back on the number of new books to stock since the passenger traffic is nearly negligible.

Meanwhile, Full Circle & Café Turtle, Delhi’s most celebrated independent bookshop, had to pull down its shutters. The store catered to its devoted customers for almost 22 years and was a prominent part of the Delhi’s Khan Market literary scene. I am told, it may open a new store but not in Khan Market, but at a nearby place.

DC Books of Kerala has been doing well for more than 45 years with so many outlets all over the southern parts of the country and is considered to be among the top ten literary publishing houses in India. It also had to slow down its operations. But, undoubtedly, it continued with its editorial work, since it publishes more than 500 titles a year. DC Books switched to a new publishing software to ensure that if the lockdown is extended further, its editorial team will be well-equipped to work remotely. At the same time, the company has claimed that the ongoing pandemic has dented its financial situation considerably.

The eCommerce giant Amazon represents a central distribution channel for publishers. However, the decision by the company in late March to prioritise delivery of goods such as food, household items during the pandemic had a serious impact on its book trade, and publishers are now stuck with their new publications and mostly customers have to wait a long durations for their orders.

Even if bookstores are now allowed to reopen nationwide under certain conditions and advisories issued by ministry of health, the crisis is far from over. Footfall in bookstores will probably remain restrained.

As the second or third wave of the pandemic is spreading across the country, publishers with their stocks of new titles and the remnant stocks of school textbooks are in a panic. Even bookstores, which were fire-fighting with minimal footfalls in the shadow of online sales of stores like Amazon, are facing serious financial crisis. Some publishers and bookstores are experimenting with online activities such as virtual book launches and social media communications.

In reality, it is an unprecedented situation for the publishing industry because of the disruption in production, sales and distribution, re-evaluation and re-scheduling of new titles and publishing catalogues. Some publishers have diverted their resources in creating eBooks and audiobooks and publishing and promoting their activities through social media like Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp, etc. After checking with the cross-section of publishers across the country, I realised, in the last six months, several publishers have experienced almost 100% growth in the sales of eBooks vis-a-vis 2018-19 sales.

This ongoing pandemic has created amazing and unintended benefits of the emergence of first time creative writers to express their views in the form of fiction. Most of these writers are Covid warriors, survivors and they have penned down their own experiences of the pandemic. Most of these creations are the experiences of Covid warriors, and patients who have sincerely expressed their inner emotions. Such mentionable books include Just Switch Off Carona by Dr MP Chaurasia, deputy superintend at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital, which sold like hot cakes. Other books include Carona Kiss by Surinder Kansala and Cupid Covid by Devinder Dingara.

However, the pandemic has forced people mostly indoors, especially people in their vulnerable age group of 60 to 80. Reading habit acquired a premium space in everyone’s mind, the reason being all bookstores were closed. This resulted in less demand from the publishing industry for new stock, which translated in major summer releases to be either pushed back or postponed.

Although some publishers claimed they released around 100 to 150 new books for fast consumption, and that too in the digital form, these covered mostly self-experiences during the Covid period, besides health issues in general. In short, the publishing industry does and will face uncertain situation ahead until we are through with this pandemic.

Tags : Som Nath Sapru;