A leaner retail and distribution system, and distribution shifting online will define publishing post Covid, according to leading publishing houses and independent publishers. They were speaking at a session on the third day of the 8th Pune International Literature Festival themed, ‘Publishing in Post Covid Times’. The panel said that agility, innovativeness and better planning will be required in the post pandemic world.
“In the beginning we assumed that it would be a matter of a few months but it has not changed dramatically since the lockdown was lifted.
Part of the problem is that books were under non-essential category and I fear in India they are not valued as much. It feels like if something had to be cut out from people’s expense accounts, the first thing that would go is books. Data in India is so cheap that everybody with a mobile phone can access so much visual content that there is not much reading to be done,” said Karthika VK, Publisher, Westland Publications Pvt Ltd.
Alexandra Pringle of Bloomsbury UK said although the pandemic did not mess with publishing as they expected, many bookshops closed and a lot of publishers pooled their publications. “A huge logjam of books arrived in September when publishers just dumped everything from what they were publishing through the year. Actually the trade that is the bookshops suffered a great deal but they became very agile and clever in the UK but I think it was much worse in India. Bookshops went online, delivered books door to door as they became more imaginative, particularly the local bookshops. We continued publishing and after a couple of months which were hard for authors being published at that time, we settled for online where Amazon did best,” Pringle said.
She said while all countries went into lockdown, the severity and extent of the regulations were factors that affected publishing houses “For us digital books did incredibly well and we are very well set up for that but not many countries are. Audiobooks witnessed an enormous boom in the US and later in the UK.”
Dipankar Mukherjee of independent publishing house Readomania said the size of their publishing house was a double-edged sword as on one end they could react faster but cash flow came under pressure sooner than the bigger houses. “Our entire dependence fell on Amazon in the initial months and we saw eBooks sales in April and May peak… But progressing, eBooks sales started to lower and print books did not pick up, as for people visiting the bookstore was the last option and even then, people went for a choice made up in their minds for a bestseller and not an independent publication.”
Vishal Soni of Vishwakarma Publications highlighted the issue of sales distribution recovery. “The logistics which include your buses, trains and other transportation means were also non-functional for quite some time and that is where distribution took backstage. Settling accounts begins in March end and a major chunk of recovery is made then. But with everything at a standstill, bookshops not only did not make a recovery but had to keep reserves for expenses of their employees, workers, rent etc,” Soni said.
Another problem was the circulating pdf which had an abundance of free books made available. “How am I supposed to make any sale on my book, when it is made available for free on formats like pdf,” said Soni.
“Distribution is not the most efficient and the problem is, the kind of influence online sales have had on the reader during the pandemic. Retailers have tried really hard as they used any possible means to get books to the reader. But the reader who is making a purchase of say a thousand rupees is very limited, mainly to big cities and outlets that have built a particular clientele. Rest are despondent on browsers…,” elaborated VK.
Speaking on the efforts behind advertising books for the market, Pringle said that advertising has become digital and also metadata has become an obsession among publishers in the UK. “Our young editors have to be up to date and keep updating the metadata in order to reach out in the new way. The recent launch of bookshops.org is helping independent sellers as an alternative to platforms like Amazon.”
Regional publication helped publications like Vishwakarma survive as the distribution patterns have come up very well as one does not have to travel and there are plenty of bookstores in Pune. “For English, we have a Print on Order (POD) system where bestsellers are always available. We have also tied up with e-book vendors associated with corporates,” said Soni. He said that the major stakeholders are bookstores and urged readers to buy from them because if they survive, the publishing houses survive.
Emphasising that the pandemic has led to several partnerships, VK said, “Small publishers and small bookstores are collaborating, very interesting partnerships are forming. Independent players are coming together and trying to come up with plans to deal with the problem. There is a sense of community that we have to get through this together. This is not about competition any more, this is about collaboration.”
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