Now is the time for publishers to show their real value

There has never been a better time for publishers to show their real value. One thing for certain, we won’t forget the heroes of the pandemic – the people and companies who have stepped up to support us. And, we have all been shown in the most stark terms what our most basic needs are.

As an industry, we are uniquely positioned to meet many of these needs and support the nation right now. After all we are in the business of informing, educating and entertaining people. And our industry has responded in many ways, with authors leading the charge.

Joe Wicks has got the nation moving. Jack Monroe has helped people turn cupboard basics into delicious dinners. Children across the country are drawing dinosaurs with Rob Biddulph. Katherine Rundell has pulled together The Book Of Hopes. Carolyn Jess Cooke has launched a Stay at Home Literary Festival. The list goes on.

Authors aren’t the only ones to step up, publishers have responded with some brilliant initiatives too.

DK has a Stay at Home Hub with all kinds of tips and ideas for coping with the lockdown, Collins has made a huge amount of its learning resources free, Nosy Crow published a free book explaining the coronavirus to children, illustrated by Axel Scheffler and PRH is donating audiobooks to prison and hospital radio during lockdown.

Not to mention Wiley who has put all of its COVID-19 resources for educators in one place, together with Charco Press, Comma Press, Istros Books, Nordisk Books and others, Peirene Press have launched the Translation Fiction Online Book Club on Zoom, Christian publisher, SPCK  has increased shipments of free prisoner literacy books to prisons fourfold, and launched a YouTube bedtime story in partnership with the Church of England. 

In response to a downturn in sales, Little Toller and Bluemoose published a one-off e-book A Stone Statue In The Future, written by author Benjamin Myers, as a way to raise funds quickly. Andersen Press has partnered with Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s books in Newcastle to give them new content for their audience whilst the centres are closed and OWNIT! is gifting a book for every book that is bought on their site.

Bookshops have shown super human effort to keep putting books into readers’ hands -  delivering on foot, bicycle, skateboard and checking up on their customers in the process. Particular shout-out to Bob at Gutter Bookshop and Simon at the Big Green Bookshop who are both total heroes. love At Home With 4 Indies, a program of online events launched by four indie booksellers, Drake Bookshop has a lovely storytelling/book club happening on their Facebook page and the Moon Lane Children’s bookshop has all kinds of activites on the go, including HipHop Love Books lockdown project on YouTube

And worth mentioning here, there is a lot of love out there for Gardners role in supporting bookshops.

Other companies across the industry have really shown their mettle too; Book Trust’s home time offers all kinds of fun activity including story time with Cressida Cowell, Toppsta is producing a daily list of online kids author activities for parents, National Literacy Trust has a brilliant family zone and a virtual world’s book club has launched in Second Life, hosted by Draxtor Despres

Literary festivals like Wigtown Book Festival have adapted very quickly – turning once a year physical events into year-round virtual programs, launching podcasts and digital exhibition spaces. Wigtown has even taken their local arts & craft exhibition online to support local businesses.

Our industry has galvanised, we have pulled together, new partnerships have formed, the lines have been blurred – authors are creating literary festivals, publishers are selling directly to readers, booksellers are shifting books without the need for physical bookshops, and publishers are joining together like never before. It is so exciting and positive to see the industry being collegiate and supportive and no longer thinking like competitors.

I would love to see this empathetic, nimble and innovative approach continue across the industry. In fact, I would say it is critical that it does. 

The pandemic may not last, but the impact on people’s lives and well-being most certainly will, and we should be thinking about how we can continue to serve people. This is an amazing opportunity for publishers to reach way beyond our existing customers.

The relationships we start now will put our businesses in a much stronger position long-term. And in marketing terms, the digital content we give away now should be the gateway for customers to our content for years to come.

However, this is dependent on these initiatives being resourced properly and embedded into our businesses. Long-term value-added marketing thinking - audience development, engaging and serving a community year-round based on their interests and needs. This approach treats publishing like the long game it is and more importantly puts readers first. And it means all of our books and content, front list and backlist, have the same value. And we showcase our authors beyond their publication window.

I would suggest this is the time to shift some energy and resources away from short-term frontlist book marketing around publication date to develop audience instead. The long game of audience building also sells books, but more importantly it builds trust in our content, adds value to our audience and is a more efficient and cost-effective way of marketing our books.

As part of this, we must use this time to understand our vulnerabilities, the pandemic has exposed us to many, here are just a few that come to mind.

Bookshops have closed and it’s incredibly hard to predict what the high streets and retail landscape will look like in a year or indeed how consumer behavior may change. 

Our supply chains have major issues – and with Bertrams' future uncertain this looks ever more vulnerable.

This pandemic has driven people to Amazon in their hordes, and we need a proper strategy to keep us from an Amazon-only world. Being deprioritized and seeing buy buttons removed should be a wake-up call we all respond to. (Did we need another?) Time to ask, what can we offer that Amazon can’t?

Related to the Amazon point, other business models and revenue streams are available – be that subscriptions, book boxes, membership, Patreon, services, joint ventures – it is high time we explore these options properly.

We have the best content and talent in the world (fact), don’t underestimate how much value this has to other businesses – we should be partnering with them to reach bigger audiences.

Anyone not offering an direct-to consumer offering has been left exposed. In 2020, there really is no excuse to not have an effective website and direct marketing and sales options. Technology is our friend. Let’s continue to embrace it, find new and interesting ways to use it to showcase our books and authors. And we immediately make our events and authors more accessible.  

We are putting huge pressure on people across the industry, and I think we should plan for some major fall out – job losses, additional responsibilities on remaining staff, huge work stress around returning to work and/or adjusting to home working, and significant well-being and mental health challenges.

As publishing bosses have commented, the disruption caused by the pandemic is now forcing their hands. And pandemic disruption may supersede any disruption this industry has seen so far.

Time to sieze the moment, get our houses in order and become  nimble, innovative, and audience-first businesses. We are in an extremely strong position (in comparison to other industries) – people have turned to us, they are reading more, and our books and content can be delivered in digital formats across borders.

I am not underestimating the challenges we have ahead, but there are many positives to focus on, not least how we have responded in the last six weeks to help people. Onwards.

My huge apologies for not mentioning all of the brilliant initiatives out there, The Bookseller has a good list of your homeschooling resources here and if you want to see a very comprehensive list, check out the responses to my tweet: