2020 (re)vision

With much of the book business still wrestling with the short-term impact of the coronavirus crisis, it may feel too soon to imagine what happens next. Nevertheless, with the peak of the pandemic behind us, a new normal is staggering into view. 

As Pan Macmillan m.d. Anthony Forbes Watson says in this week’s Lead Story, which canvassed business leaders for their views on what comes next, Covid-19 has become “an accelerator, catalysing change across our business”. Or as another c.e.o. told me this week: “This changes everything for everybody.” 

There is some consensus: Faber’s Stephen Page reckons the “hybrid of digital and physical worlds will [now] have a new balance”; for PRH UK chief executive Tom Weldon. the “shift to online retail for books has accelerated”, while OUP boss Nigel Portwood sees a “step-change in the requirements for digital resources”. Hachette c.e.o. David Shelley predicts this period of decentralised working will make it very possible for publishers to be based in more locations nationwide.

We know some things already. Amazon has gained, as have supermarkets; bookshops, small presses and début (or non-brand) authors have not. We are learning that the lockdown has been less severe for bigger publishers than we might have thought going into it, with a number of trade publishers now revising up their projections for the spring. Yet with the high street locked down, big events and travel curtailed, it will be at best a stuttered comeback.We know too that demand for books has been strong: readers want to read, and though we do not yet have the numbers to back it up, we do know that there is demand for printed books as well as increased interest in digital; we know too, through the many virtual author-led events, that there is also a clamour for conversation about books. It is not for nothing that Richard and Judy are returning to ntelevision next week, or that the BBC has been heavily invested in The Big Book Weekend. 

We also know we have become too reliant on Amazon, which has control over two-thirds of the supply chain, online and digital; that the third bit, the high street, libraries and festivals, is vital for literary titles, débuts and other non-brand authors. As my colleague Kiera O’Brien writes: what we see in the charts now is a glimpse into a world without bookshops. We understand too that publishers’ lack of will to build their own direct-to consumer operations has become an Achilles’ heel, as has their reluctance to use print-on-demand. But we also know that investment in distribution is paying off, and that money spent on bettering websites, and finding new types of readers online, will not have been wasted.

Before it arrived, 2020 promised much, a new decade and a new government, which, even if it was not the one many of us would have chosen, at least offered a resolution to the Brexit dither. We are moving into another world now: the more we can explore it before we get there, the better it’ll be when we touch down.