The future of publishing and book-selling, post-Covid

 

The world is constantly changing, and any business that doesn’t adapt is liable to fail. Change is often gradual, or is sudden in one particular area, so there’s a cushion of normalcy within which to plan.

The current pandemic has thrown that on its head. The changes brought about by lockdowns have been both sudden and far-reaching, and businesses are struggling. Many have already gone under. And even those businesses that are doing well are struggling to cope with increased workload or increased demand‌—‌supermarkets have run low on stock, and have had to employ more staff to cope with demand, for example.

One industry that has so far weathered current events well is independent publishing. These businesses are usually run by a single person (the writer of the books they publish), and make the majority of their sales on-line in digital format. In fact, many indie publishers have reported a rise in sales over the last few months.

But over publishing and bookselling overall, the picture is different. Production of physical books has been delayed by the slow-down in manufacturing, and there have not been high-street stores open to sell the books anyway. Even as bookstores open up in the UK, people are reticent about using them like they once did‌—‌how does someone browse books when there’s the risk of passing on infection through touching the books themselves?

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So what does the future look like for publishers and bookstores for the rest of the year? It’s impossible to say with any certainty, but for each company or business I see four possibilities.

(I’m ignoring libraries in this because they are about so much more than books‌—‌maybe that’s a subject for another day)

Some will fall

This, sadly, is inevitable. Some stores and publishers will close their doors for good, and others will be bought out. This will, of course, impact staff, as well as contractors and clients.

Some will manage to carry on as if nothing has happened

Through extensive financial backing or incredibly loyal customers, a handful of stores and publishers might weather the storm relatively unscathed, and continue as they have done previously. But this will be a very small minority, and I don’t think any store or publisher should bank on this happening to them‌—‌they probably have more chance of winning the lottery.

Some will adapt

I hope this will be true of the majority of publishing-related businesses. Those who are relatively new won’t be set in their ways, and so will be more agile, more flexible in their approach to the difficulties Covid-19 has thrown up. Older companies will have been through other periods of change, and so have experience to work with. They may also have deeper pockets and more resources.

But how will they adapt?

Independent bookstores have been adapting for years‌—‌offering more personal services (like events, or providing social activities around the books they sell) and becoming specialists in particular niches. Interestingly, Waterstones did something similar when James Daunt took over‌—‌he gave each store greater independence, encouraging staff to order in the stock they believed those in their area would want. Instead of each store becoming carbon-copies of one another, they became more local, encouraging greater customer loyalty as the stores provided what their customers most wanted. And as consumers return to physical stores, many are going to want to help those stores they have an attachment to‌—‌local stores, or ones that offer exactly what the customer wants.

And then there’s the whole digital sphere. Daunt has recently taken over Barnes & Noble, and he’s spoken of reviving the Nook (the B&N e-reader and e-book store). I wouldn’t be surprised if other stores (and publishers?) entered deals with e-book stores, similar to the deal between Walmart and Kobo. Also, I’d expect them to focus more on their own on-line platforms for physical sales.

Amazon showed how this could work, in their physical stores. I’ve written before how their stores work not so much as somewhere to buy but somewhere to browse, with staff ready to help customers make online purchases, either physical copies shipped to their doors or digital copies they can read on their Kindles or mobiles. So it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine other places doing something similar, even if it’s only through encouraging customers to order physical copies. They might even stress the benefits of this‌—‌a sealed copy that hasn’t been touched by countless other browsers, home-delivered.

Then there are audio-books. They’ve come a long way from bulky tapes or CDs, and mobile technology (and smart speakers) makes listening to audiobooks so easy. Audiobook sales have risen drastically over the last few years, and I’d imagine publishers pushing more of this content. If bookstores work in conjunction with on-line providers, they could move into this field too.

Some will introduce radically new ways of working.

Restrictions have always given the possibility of innovation. Many artists prefer restrictions to having an ‘anything goes’ approach. Similarly, tough times often result in huge leaps forward.

While many will seek ways to mould their old ways of working to fit the new normal, others will take this time as an opportunity to try wild new ideas. It’s likely that not many of these ideas will work out in the long term, but those that do could be game-changing.

I can’t give firm examples, of course, but I can throw out a few possibilities. As virtual reality technology improves, maybe we’ll soon be shopping in virtual stores, ‘walking’ around the shelves and ‘picking up’ those books that interest us. Subscription services for TV, film and music are expanding, so maybe we’ll see more book-based subscription services. Then there’s print-on-demand‌—‌the Espresso Book Machine already allows in-store printing, but what if this technology improved, with both cost and size coming down? Or how about the trend in high-quality print editions‌—‌will we see an increase in books as art-works of themselves, secondary to the words inside?

Who knows what will happen? But something will. It’s likely that a few radically new ideas will develop and eventually take hold. Just think of e-books. Their history stretches back to the 70s, and the first dedicated e-reader only came out at the end of the 90s, but their importance in publishing today is undeniable.

And, like e-books, these new ideas will inevitably disrupt the status quo. They will throw up huge challenges for publishing and book-selling.

But that’s fine. In fact, it’s good. Change is inevitable. It’s through change that industry, business and art grow and develop. Without change there is only stagnation.

 

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