Physical bookshops remain vital to the future of the publishing ecosystem; customers will return to chains like Waterstones but in fewer numbers than before the crisis; and publishers have to be agile and innovative and in particular need to look at direct selling.
These are among the conclusions of senior figures in the UK book industry as they acknowledge life in a corona virus world, albeit one with a reduced threat, and as bookshops prepare to re-open on 15 June. Faber CEO Stephen Page said: “It has become plain over the past 10 weeks that without a physical high street, the world of reading rapidly diminishes for almost everyone. Sales in e and audio may be showing some pleasing growth, but it a small sea in an ocean of lost print sales.”
Publishers need to support independent booksellers as they find “new ways to trade”, he believes. Indies themselves need to find “a long-term solution to becoming multi-channel retailers, and they must introduce a strong and sustainable online offering very soon”.
Speaking at the Independent Publishers Guild virtual conference, Waterstones’ CEO James Daunt said: “I don’t think there will be a rush back to the high street, as one assumes that consumers, or at least a proportion of them, will be cautious about doing so. But equally it’s also clear that there isn’t going to be a total boycott of the high street and indeed, if my local supermarket is anything to go by, people are prepared to queue for extraordinary lengths of time to get inside.
“So the shopping experience will change. While coronavirus restrictions are in place there will be fewer people shopping. But I think the attributes and merits of physical shopping remain as clear before as they do after.”
Waterstone branches will have social distancing markings and protective screens in place, and staff will wear PPE – personal protection equipment. Browsed titles will be placed in quarantine for up to 72 hours before being returned to the shop-flor. Daunt added that new books performed less well online because they lacked the element of bookseller in-store recommendation.
Agent Jonny Geller, chair of Curtis Brown, urged publishers to be as innovative as possible and to ask themselves “What’s best for the author? What is the platform, where are the opportunities?” And he reiterated his view that publishers need to look at direct selling, though of course, this may not win publishers the hearts of their bookshop customers.