What does the future hold for publishing?

“Well, my immediate response is – if I knew the answer I would be not only wealthy but in danger of sounding arrogant!” says Jacks Thomas.

Guest Director, BolognaBooklus, Jacks Thomas is an international books and culture specialist with over twenty five years’ experience. Thomas stepped down from The London Book Fair which she led as Director from 2013 to 2020, having worked in the arts and corporate sectors throughout her career.

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If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that forecasting the future is not for the faint hearted. The global pandemic has led to an acceleration of change and priorities that few could have foreseen at the start of 2020. Twelve months into this ‘new normal,’ the impact on publishing – from business models to buying behaviour – has been significant and while we all hope for a return to what we now think of as ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ life – in actual fact just pre-pandemic – some impacts on our industry are likely to remain with us in the future.

Publishing in the times of Covid…

At the heart of many of the changes has been the escalation towards digital, not only in the products we sell, but in our working practices. In the UK where a lockdown or ‘stay at home’ message has persisted throughout much of the last year, businesses set up for flexible or remote working have been at a distinct advantage. For others, investment in equipment and home working space has come as a costly addition to now unused premises. According to research by Maverick Publishing Specialists, many publishers now expect to rethink office space, looking ahead to a more hybrid work model that blends quality in-person interaction with the flexibility of working from home. Surely not all bad as the ‘Covid Catalyst’ simply upped the pace of change already in train across so many industries that sought to give workforces a better work life balance?

But, we are a sociable, creative industry and how we effectively manage staff in this distanced setting is also something publishing alongside many other industries, will need to get to grips with. For many years, the bedrock of publishing – from launch parties to fairs – has thrived on in-person interaction. Although we have seen people adapting well to this remote structure, we have yet to see the full impact on wellbeing and productivity in an ‘always on’ but distanced format. How can we nurture relationships, induct new starters and skill-up our staff to ensure they have the tools and support they need?

Indian scenario…

As in many parts of the world, India saw a major impact on its print distribution channels in 2020. E-book and audio grew to fulfil demand and, in a country where print is by far the most dominant format, it has been remarkable to see a move towards e-book first publishing in some quarters. Providers such as HP, and distributors like Ingram, have also reported that publishers have been utilising Print on Demand services more than ever, even for front list titles, suggesting that incorporating digital formats and virtual inventories will be key to sustainable business models going forward. Combine no wastage and fast turnaround with the print local benefits to sustainability policies and we cannot help but realise that Covid has fast-tracked some changes that must be of benefit on many levels.

Analysing the buyer behaviour…

And what of buyer behaviour? The last year has seen a huge surge in online purchases, which has helped businesses like Bookshop.org to flourish. Something that is set to continue into the future. In a December report looking at the permanence of change on consumer behaviour, Nielsen looked at the retail landscape in China. Its uniquely fast rebound, the report says, has made it a bellwether for things to come elsewhere. In addition to growth in online, the country has seen a significant shake-up in its retail space, where trends such as online to offline shopping have accelerated. “Retailers and brands that have resisted adapting to COVID-19-shifted spending” it says, “now find themselves lagging behind faster-moving competitors that adjusted for the ongoing change.” The mechanisms for aiding online discovery, local convenience and swift delivery is something we are perfecting as a sector, alongside cherishing the unique bookshop experience.

Road ahead…

As ever, the publishing industry works best when it comes together to tackle change and we will surely meet these new challenges as a global team. Future-proofing books – in the variety of formats that our agile industry allows us to enjoy in the 21st century – how they are produced, distributed and accessed is arguably more important than ever. It is in that vein that I look forward to inviting distinguished colleagues from around the world to the first ever BolognaBookPlus – In Person, Online, In June. However we are able to get together, we are bound to hear some fascinating insights about how our brightest minds are facing some of the biggest challenges facing our industry today.

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