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By Bodour Al Qasimi

There is a good reason I was inspired by the story of William Kamkwamba, the boy who transformed his own life and that of his community in Malawi through his scientific curiosity and passion. What William taught me and millions of others, is that lack of resources and difficult circumstances do not necessarily mean inevitable failure. He taught us the valuable lesson that amid even dire situations, there are always hidden opportunities for those who know where to look. William was represented very well in the movie The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, an inspiring story about William’s persistence to create a wind turbine to power appliances and bring water to his community, which was on the verge of destruction because of drought. He did all of that with little education and lots of imagination.

When I think of the current state of the publishing world amid such an unprecedented global crisis, I can’t help but think of William Kamkwamba’s story. His entire community was about to be wiped out because of a lack of water. Fortunately, the publishing world is not on the verge of total extinction like William’s village, but we are experiencing a serious shake-up of our industry and many publishers are facing an existential threat. Having been active within the global publishing sector for more than a decade, it makes me sad to see many publishers struggling to stay afloat since the global supply chain came to an almost complete halt in March of this year.

It is natural to lose hope when we go through difficult situations – the pressure of the moment makes many of us lose the ability to see the bigger picture, but history teaches us that it is precisely in these difficult situations that great things can be created. There is much uncertainty in global publishing circles right now, but I think the only thing we can count on with great certainty is that this crisis will trigger real opportunities for growth. This is why I believe that the publishing industry will bounce back strongly from this crisis, despite the losses reported by some publishing houses during Q1 of 2020.

No one can predict with a high degree of certainty what markets will look like after the crisis subdues and normal life resumes – we don’t even know what normal will look like in a few months’ time. The good news is that readership is already returning as part of the daily routine of millions of people around the world, and as a result, book sales have held up reasonably well. I think publishers should encourage this trend and try to double or triple efforts to foster and grow readership across our respective markets. It’s one way for us to guarantee a steady increase in the demand for books.

But strong readership numbers are not enough for publishers to sustain and grow our business post-crisis. There is an urgent need for innovation, agility and the creation of new resilient value chains. I believe that one of the opportunities that publishers need to focus on is direct engagement with the readers and consumers. A direct consumer approach will help publishers connect directly with our readers and will create opportunities for us to grow our businesses into household brands. This can be achieved not just through book production, apps, audiobooks, websites, or online book clubs, but by creating an entire experience that adds a sense of community, and which forges stronger relationships with the reader. To do this, we need to nurture the relationship with the reader through multiple knowledge products (not just books) to keep them within the community.

For publishers to seize this golden opportunity, the industry needs to acknowledge once and for all that the future of publishing is inextricably linked to continuing advancements in technology and delivery platforms. We are all therefore responsible for creating an internal culture in our companies that adapts rapidly and continuously to this new digital reality. This is why I think it’s time that we move beyond the classical debate of whether print is or isn’t dead. I hope that print will stay for the foreseeable future, but regardless of whether print will survive, creating cutting edge digital solutions is now one of the most promising opportunities for all publishers.

Advancements in technology and digital marketing tools mean we now have a huge opportunity to understand our readers, or audiences, with meticulous precision, which was impossible only 10 or 15 years ago. This understanding can allow for 1) precise segmentation of our audiences and 2) personalization of content subjects and the delivery medium. This is a real area of growth for us, and I think readers will reward those publishers that enable them to curate and consume the content according to their own needs and wishes

In the same vein, remote learning presents publishers with unprecedented opportunities. Overnight, hundreds of millions of students of all levels are now schooled online from their homes across the globe. There are many signs that remote learning will remain, in one way or another, after the world is entirely free from the pandemic. This new trend in education opens the door for publishing innovation as teachers, schools, and governments scramble for adequate content to sustain online education and to support the education process.

The initial feedback coming from parents with children currently studying is that in general, their kids don’t feel as engaged with online learning as they do in school. This is where publishers come in. With the right focus and forward-looking vision, many publishers can now transform their business model to focus on the creation of innovative online educational material.

Obviously, not all publishers are going to be able to digitize their offerings and create new opportunities by themselves. If we have learned anything from this crisis, it’s that staying together and working together is vital to overcome challenges. I think this is an excellent opportunity to look at partnerships with a fresh perspective. No matter the size of the publishing company, we will need strategic investments and creative collaboration to diversify our markets, authors, suppliers, illustrators, and readers. Moving beyond our ‘classical’ markets and readers (and comfort zones) is a surefire way to start increasing sales. The time is right for this because all publishers are currently motivated to act and think differently in order to survive and thrive. I think, and hope, that by the end of this crisis we will see a shift in the global publishing partnership map.

Moving forward with agile and fresh thinking will ensure that publishers will flourish during and post Covid-19. However, we can’t do it alone, publishers need government support to keep going, and the good news is that many governments are planning to help, which is another opportunity for us. While this might not apply to every country, many governments around the world are working on financial stimulus packages for public libraries, authors, and publishers. This financial aid will help many publishers weather the storm and stay operational. I also think that the time is ripe to engage governments to discuss changes in some policies and tariffs. We need more agile public policies and regulations to accompany us during this time of transition and stabilization, and we also need to lobby governments to review their tariffs to ease publishers’ burdens.

In this context, I want to congratulate the UK’s publishing community for the new Zero VAT Tax on eBooks legislation that was just passed May 1st. This legislation will undoubtedly slash costs and boost sales of eBooks, and so I hope other governments will follow suit. Governments are also responsible for the development of culture and creative industries, and it is our responsibility to remind them of the importance of their role in sustaining the publishing industry.

Like William Kamkwamba, publishers are threatened with a critical and life-changing situation. It’s time to wake up and realize this, as we don’t have the luxury of time to analyze and overthink, or to adopt a ‘wait and see approach’. The important thing now is to face reality, believe in ourselves, and seize the opportunities that this crisis presents. The competitive landscape is changing, and with that comes an urgent need to change the way we think about the future of our industry. Let’s collaborate and work together to ensure publishing adapts to our new world.