It’s no secret that coronavirus has turned everyone’s world upside down over the past year. Businesses have gone bust, families have been separated and, most tragically, many people have died.
Almost every industry and organisation has been hit in some way. One huge shock to the British book selling and publishing ecosystem came in June 2020, when wholesaler Bertram Books went into administration. For years, so many small bookshops had relied on Bertram for their stock. I was one of them when I had my own bookshop in Pontyclun, near Cardiff in South Wales. I relied on Bertrams for point of sale systems and the bulk of the orders we placed.
At Wordcatcher, we had planned to publish 100 books last year – no small feat. Unfortunately, the time constraints COVID-19 placed on our staff and authors, illustrators and other contributions meant we only released 34. We had to cancel 75 front list titles entirely, and our 2021 schedule is still in flux.
Keeping in mind the challenges coronavirus continues to pose, this article identifies four key risks and opportunities 2021 offers to publishing. As a British publisher, our focus is on the UK, although much of what we say will probably apply elsewhere too.
1. No in-person events
Much as last year, Boris Johnson’s 4th January 2021 announcement, and the decalrations from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, of a third national lockdown mean that in-person events are not happening until at least the second quarter, and we suspect longer. This will hit poets and poetry presses hardest, since they often rely on in-person readings to make the majority of their sales.
Again, as in 2020, in-person book launches are off the table, for many months to come. Authors with a small but dedicated fan base will feel the pinch here, as these are typically a major area for their sales. The same is true of real-world book fairs and events.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining here. Publishers and authors can get ahead by going online. While the level of connection is not quite the same as an in-person event, doing something is probably better than nothing. At the very least, you will keep yourself fresh in your fans’ minds. In the best case scenario, by putting on a high-quality online reading or book launch, you could attract visitors from across the world who would never have flown thousands of miles to see you.
Online book events are something we at Wordcatcher Publishing have an eye to develop throughout this year.
2. Increased time spent indoors
The new most restrictive lockdown to date means that people will be spending almost all of their time indoors again. Many workers will be furloughed, leaving them with little to do. Aside from other hobbies like Netflix, gardening, DIY, knitting and cooking, it is a fair assumption that reading and writing will see increased uptake, as was demonstrated in 2020.
At the same time, rates of reading surged during the first lockdown. Industry data provider Nielsen found that people in UK were spending twice as much time with their head in books than they had been before COVID-19 struck. In other words, the market is growing, ready for writers and publishers to tap into it.
3. 2021 is the first full year ebooks are VAT free in Britain
Finally, on 1 May 2020, the UK Government scrapped value-added tax on ebooks, bringing them in line with printed books. While this change has therefore been in force for more than half a year at this point, 2021 is the first full year with the new rule in effect. Therefore, it will take until the end of this year for us to acquire sufficient data to know how significant the results of this shift have been.
Moreover, publishers are still coming to terms with the best strategy for using the 20% increase in income (assuming they have kept retail prices unchanged). Do they pass it on to customers to entice them to buy more books? Do they keep the RRP the same to recoup some of the losses made on lower print sales? Do they reduce prices slightly as a middle ground?
At Wordcather we have decided to keep retail prices the same, or even reduce more drastically than 20%. When the first lockdown hit us in March 2020 many publishers drastically reduced their praces to encourage more reading as a form of passing the time. We followed suit, and have yet to return those reduced prices to pre-2020 costs.
4. Do book-selling seasons exist any more?
Given how much COVID has disrupted our way of life, it’s time for us to question some of the assumptions our industry is founded on. Yes, across the board, we did see sales rise in December, as you’d expect with Christmas coming. However, precisely because people are reading more and because there is less on which to differentiate one day from the next, are we sure January is going to be the slump month it often is for many retailers? We anticiapte sales will be down on December, only time will tell to what extent. It’s possible we will see a flattening of the normal peaks and troughs in publishing sales over the course of the coming year.
If this guess turns out to be correct, it could mean marketing in what is traditionally considered the off-season will be a lower-cost but more effective solution than in years gone by, especially for small publishing houses and self-published authors.
5. Increased attention to corporate responsibility
The serious damage COVID has caused to our way of life has led many businesses and individuals to reflect. And not just on coronavirus, but about other existential threats too, such as the climate crisis. Corporate responsibility is going to be at the forefront of our attention this year. This is fantastic news, because it provides each of us with an opportunity to do something great for our planet, to ensure there’s somewhere left for our great-grandchildren to live.
This isn’t a money-making opportunity to us, but it’s just as important. Check out our 12 Days of Christmas series of posts about our committment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals Publishers Compact, where we detail our plan of action for bringing about a more sustainable future. Here’s one of our favourites: 6. Raising Awareness Among Suppliers | UN Sustainable Development Goals Publishers Compact Commitments.
We hope this article has helped give clarity to our readers and contributors about what the future might hold. Let us know what you think in the comments below. Crystal-ball gazing is fun to do at the start of the year, the proof will be returning to this post in January 2022 to see just how accurate it was.
We look forward to bringing you more expert insight from our business authors related to their industries and specialisms. Check back for additional business briefings over the coming weeks.