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A shift away from London as publishing’s base, the resilience of books to recession, a world in which social distancing may become the norm and a need to reform the rates system to protect physical bookstores were among predictions for a post-coronavirus world made by industry leaders in the UK in a survey conducted by the Bookseller magazine.
David Shelley, CEO of Hachette UK, said: “If we can maintain our base of retailers, in the UK and worldwide, then I think there is every reason to suggest that publishing will bounce back strongly from this. Books are an affordable luxury that give more hours of pleasure or knowledge per pound spent that virtually any other medium.
Long-term, I do think there are some potentially interesting possibilities that this situation will throw up. We have recently opened an office in Manchester and I can see from this experience, and the relative ease of decentralised working, that it will be very possible for us to be based in more locations nationwide, and to be less dependent on London.”
Tom Weldon, CEO of Penguin Random House UK noted the shift to online selling. “For now, at least, the shift to online retail for books has accelerated. This will likely continue in the longer term, and publishers and booksellers will need to be agile, flexible and entrepreneurial in adapting to that. At Penguin Random House we are focusing a lot of resources on using our own direct-to-consumer channels to connect readers with booksellers online. Of the 1.3 million users who visited penguin.co.uk last month, a significant proportion—around 12%—clicked through to an online retail site, including Amazon, Waterstones and the Hive [the online site run by UK wholesaler Gardners which gives a percentage of sales to independent bookshops]
“The habit of reading will only get stronger. The way we connect with readers might be different, but the end result will be the same: people want books to inform, to escape, to comfort and to entertain.”
Charlie Redmayne, CEO of HarperCollins UK, is confident that sales will bounce back. “The lack of specialist bookshops able to trade has meant that books that traditionally do well through them are suffering, while on the other hand both Amazon and the supermarkets have stepped up and have shown commitment to ensuring that books and home education titles remain available to their customers. It has also been good to see the growth in Waterstones’online business.
As we see more retail opportunities online, in the coming months we will see improving trading conditions—April has been tough, but May will be better, and June will be better still. Our economy will be significantly impacted for some time, but we do know from previous recessions that people will still want books and will still buy books.”
Isobel Dixon of Blake Friedman, who is president of the Association of Authors Agents, said: “What the extreme contagious- ness of virus and the lockdown has brought home to us is how intimately interconnected we are in the publishing eco-system, and how much we all depend on the sale of print copies to footfall customers in bricks-and-mortar bookshops. The government needs to seriously reconsider the rates and tax infrastructure, and how current regulations exacerbate booksellers’ difficulties in a landscape dominated by Amazon and the supermarkets—who have gained so much more ground during the crisis.”
Finally, two views from independents. Stephen Page, Chief Executive at Faber UK said: “It’s clear that the new environment, even after the lockdown is eased, is going to be quite different from before, as social distancing will go on for a long time and may become habitual in our society”. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, publishing director at fellow independent Cassava Republic, sounded optimistic: “I am positive that the industry will bounce back, as the demand for books is still strong and writers remain in demand as credible critics and cultural witnesses. What Covid-19 has shown is the need to be more responsive and to engage more directly with our readers and build communities, something indie presses like us have been very good at doing anyway. This moment is a reminder that big isn’t always best, that they can and will fall/fail you, and it is the small, alternative and local sellers who will come to the rescue and save the day.”