Sharjah International Book Fair: the pandemic factor

This article is from BookBrunch, by Jo Henry. Click here to see the original article.

Taking place from 3-13 November, the 40th Sharjah International Book Fair will welcome visitors after a particularly challenging year for the book industry. BookBrunch has spoken to Ravi Deecee, ceo of DC Books publishers in Kerala, India; Gvantsa Jobava, editor and international relations manager at Intelekti Publishing in Tbilisi, Georgia; and Nathan Hull, chief strategy officer at Beat Technology, a Norwegian company providing subscription services for publishers of audio and ebooks – all participants in last year’s Sharjah International Book Fair – to discover how they have fared over the past 12 months.

All three saw a huge impact on their organisations from Covid-19. In India, all businesses were closed for the months of April and May 2020 – except for bookstores, which were, says Deecee, “deemed essential through our efforts in convincing the government to keep the mental health of the people intact. Even so, about 30% of our stores were closed due to their being in airports and in major shopping malls, where the government has restricted movements.”

In Georgia, all bookstores were closed in spring 2020, affecting the supply chain and with a knock-on effect on publishers. “Online sales were banned as well,” says Jobava, “thus depriving publishers and booksellers of the only source of income they had left. The restriction was lifted after some time, but in December bookstores were closed for several weeks again. The impact of non-existing sales, even for a few weeks, was devastating.”

She adds: “We had to adjust to the new conditions. Working remotely from home was rather a challenge, not to mention the technical part – communications with colleagues and partners were complicated too. So as soon as it was permitted, we decided to reopen our office.”

Beat Tehnology’s business has been less badly affected, even seeing some growth over the past 18 months: “As a company where remote working is already the norm, [we] have adapted pretty cleanly,” says Hull. “We’re an international bunch located in seven or eight cities around Europe, so we’re very fortunate that it’s largely been business as usual with just a couple of exceptions.

“First, the appetite for audiobooks and subscriptions models saw an unprecedented surge; and second, the creative, collaborative processes of gathering our teams and sometimes platform partners in one physical space to play with new ideas has been hampered. Of course, we’ve continued digitally, but zoom can’t capture the vibrancy or energy of ideas or a creative team in quite the same way. During the heart of the pandemic, though, we developed platforms for the largest publishers in Denmark, Germany, Spain and Romania – so something’s working.”

Organisations have reacted to these limitations in various ways, with digital offerings coming into their own round the world. In India, DC Books gave away free books to people with Covid or in quarantine, and swelled its ebook subscription base by 75,000 people in the first 30 days of lockdown as it slashed ebook prices by 50% and added daily deals and combo schemes to its offer.

DC Books also, says Deecee, made the decision to get into audiobooks: “We have started studios for recording audiobooks, and worked with Storytel Sweden to have our books available in audio format.” He added: “Our online books sales have been growing exponentially. The supply chain and delivery mechanism seems to be sorted out across India. We have a growth of 300% in our online sales.”

Beat saw a similar drive to digital: “Apart from the surge in demand generally for publisher D2C subscription models,” says Hull, “the closure of bricks and mortar stores has seen a significant demand for improved digital solutions for the stores. We’re taking calls from each continent with major retailers, seeking new and improved solutions. The pandemic sadly exposed some raw and obvious flaws as well opportunities. These oversights can now be fixed. Navigating these issues has been incredibly fulfilling and will actually improve readers’ experience, with these stores way beyond what readers had pre-pandemic.”

While ebooks may not be yet in such strong demand in Georgia yet, the restrictions to the supply chain meant that online sales boomed. “Consumers started purchasing books through websites, social networks and actively using home delivery services, even new online platforms emerged during this period,” says Jobava. “Even now, when the bookstores are open, readers are actively using online services to buy books.” Despite the relatively undeveloped market for ebooks, this year Intelekti Publishing has adapted its textbooks in ebook formats for the first time. “We considered the need of Georgian students learning from home, and created a special platform of textbooks in ebook formats for them,” Jobava reports.

Now that some markets are beginning to return to normal, publishers and retailers are counting the cost of the pandemic. In India, DC Books reports no growth in publishing, and real challenges for booksellers. Beat Technologies, on the other hand, points to a general acceleration of the audiobook market, which had already been on a significant growth curve pre-pandemic. Hull says: “The mature audiobook markets are seeing more platforms entering, and sometimes new business models with them. The developing markets are also rapidly picking up pace. Asia, Africa, the Middle East, LATAM and previously dormant areas of Europe now have a plethora of activity underway – studio builds, international expansions, recordings, start ups. It’s incredibly exciting. But equally it’s something publishers very quickly need to understand, manage and capitalise on, otherwise others will.”

In Georgia, with a relatively small book market, many continue to suffer. “Our industry is mainly built on medium and small publishing houses,” commented Jobova, “so the financial loss in 2020 caused by the pandemic was enormous for our publishers.” It means, she says, that “the pace of development and growth has stopped – we’ve been mainly putting our energy to helping our businesses survive. This will have a long-term effect for a small industry like ours. The loss of staff caused by the pandemic will make it difficult to return to the old rhythm.

“After the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2018 [when Georgia was the Guest of Honour] we choose the new motto: Follow the Journey of Georgian Characters. We were planning trips all round the globe with our books, our publishers, our inspiring writers. But travel became almost impossible. We are trying to adopt to the new reality and to do our best to use all kinds of online platforms to go ahead – and, what is the most important, not to lose what we have already achieved.”

Jobava points also to Tbilisi’s new status as UNESCO World Book Capital, and hopes it will have a positive impact on the country’s book market after such a difficult period: “On one hand, this project gives us the opportunity to be still active on the international level, but on the other hand, especially in the pandemic era, this project is important for our writers and publishers, because this is a chance to develop our local market, receiving new funds from our government and from the private sector. It’s an opportunity to look forward in spite of the pandemic disaster.”