From May 4–7, due to global sanctions in place following the advent of Covid-19, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair moved to the digital space for an online special edition. On the morning of May 4, Elena Pasoli, exhibition manager of the BCBF, introduced the inaugural panel, “Children’s Publishing in the ‘New Normal’: How Children’s Publishers are Adapting to a Post-Pandemic World.” After welcoming the panelists, Pasoli handed over the virtual mic to moderator Maria Russo, children’s books editor of the New York Times, who kicked off the conversation.
Gita Wolf of Tara Books in India was the first speaker, contributing via a prerecorded video as internet instability prevented her from joining the live session. “We’ve learned to adopt a lot of systems to work online,” Wolf said, explaining that Tara’s online and physical shops are closed. Citing India’s lockdown as “one of the most severe” in the world, Wolf said that business in that country has come to a near-complete standstill.
“Interestingly, we’ve had a few rights deals which have come through, mainly with Korea and Taiwan,” Wolf said, speculating that perhaps circumstances have begun to improve in those East Asian countries. Because of India’s lockdown situation, Wolf continued, Tara Books has mostly been focusing on project development, as well as strengthening “backend things we didn’t previously have time for.”
On the future of the publishing landscape as a whole, Wolf said, “What we yearn for now is physical contact, meeting people—things that we can touch.” Presuming there will be “a kind of fatigue with virtual things,” Wolf said that she expects the popularity of physical books to continue to endure, emphasizing that reading books together with children will remain vital. “As for content, it’s difficult to say,” Wolf admitted, “because you want to refer to what’s going on but you’re also tired of it.”
Russo then segued back to the live participants, asking them to speak about both the situation in their individual countries and at their respective publishing houses.
Calling in from San Francisco, Jack Jensen of Chronicle Books started by giving thanks to the Bologna team. He then explained how the owner of Chronicle, San Francisco-based media company McAvoy Group, also owns Mudpuppy, a provider of children’s activity kits, and Galison, the leading provider of jigsaw puzzles, which has given them “an extraordinary product offering in a sheltered world.”
“The real challenge has been our inability to address what has been huge consumer demand,” Jensen admitted, citing the requisite social distancing and the distribution systems put in place as reasons for delays. “The largest department we now have in our company is customer service,” Jensen said, revealing that customer complaints about late deliveries have been flooding in. “It’s what we call the Amazon factor; customers believe they can have whatever they want tomorrow.”
As for the state of Chronicle in particular, Jensen said that the company has used some degree of remote work for quite some time, so most employees are accustomed to that; however, there are still challenges now that the whole company has to comply. Jensen views the normal in-person interface as “instrumental,” saying, “I can’t see a collaborative effort like [our current digital one] surviving ad infinitum.”
Sophie Giraud at Hélium Éditions in France summarized the situation in her country, saying there “are mostly no books being sold,” and conversations have been focusing on when bookstores will reopen and how. “They’re going to reopen on May 11, and the first delivery that we’ll send to the bookstores will be May 27,” Giraud said, expressing relief while noting that her company will likely cut its program by 40%. However, Giraud looked on the bright side, calling the time working with her authors “interesting.” As for the future of publishing, Giraud speculated that the publisher will have to be far more selective with its titles, while saying, “Our production must lead our children into the new world.”
Bodour Al Qasimi of Kalimat Group, UAE and v-p of the International Publishers Association spoke next, articulating her disappointment at not being able to attend Bologna, as Sharjah was supposed to be the guest of honor. Despite the UAE’s comparable lockdown and work-from-home situations, the founder and CEO of Kalimat encouraged looking at the time as “an opportunity for self-reflection and creativity,” saying that many of the company’s authors are “coming up with such creative ideas.”
As for the industry as a whole, Al Qasimi said, “This is a chance to embrace digital and go into that space and explore. We need to reinvent our business models; we need to think of new solutions that will take us to the future.”
Roger Thorp of Thames & Hudson in the U.K. spoke about how the closure of bookstores, museums, and galleries has affected the publishing group. “We’re looking at the prices, we’re looking at the print runs, and we’re trying to have those conversations with our authors as well,” Thorp said, highlighting the fact that rights discussions are still going on in the digital realm.
Gaia Stock at Edizioni EL - Einaudi Ragazzi in Italy spoke first about Italians’ pessimism regarding the pandemic, especially as they initially did not have a conception of how long it would last. She described reductions, stating that “65% of new titles will likely be cut,” and predicted greater selectivity in future acquisitions. “Some books are very important to publish for us, for the markets, and for the foreign markets,” Stock said; unfortunately, she projects that next year’s foreign rights sales will be far less than this year.
On a more positive note, she said the pandemic has caused the development and popularity of door-to-door book delivery in Italy, paid for by the publishers. Even after Covid-19 subsides, Stock expects this method of dissemination to continue in order to push back against Amazon; the costs will likely be split between deliverers and publishers.
Next up was Sahar Tarhandeh of TUTI Books in Iran, who revealed that even before the coronavirus crisis, Iran was “battling many, many problems, many of them caused by U.S. sanctions.” Iranian publishers have been facing a shortage of supplies and printing options, as well as huge financial difficulties, since their currency is dropping against the dollar. “It’s very difficult to do any international dealings,” she stated, as international banks are prohibited from dealing with Iran due to sanctions. Tarhandeh continued by relaying that the cancellation of the Tehran International Book Fair is a great loss, as many sales depend on the traffic the fair brings in.
As for TUTI Books, the small company has also moved to online meetings and is working on postponed projects, including updating its website, reading manuscripts, going through international catalogs, and working closely with NGOs to provide books to hearing- and sight-impaired children, as well as informative books on the coronavirus.
Joining from Beijing, Zhang Yuntao of Daylight in China greeted her fellow panelists with “Good midnight!” Providing a different perspective, she spoke about Beijing’s current low-level of emergency; for the forthcoming May holidays, travel is presumed to be safe again, and many residents are excited to be able to do so. Zhang said that the closures in February and March caused a 30% decline in sales, but from April, with the mitigation of the emergency and the recommencement of printing and delivery services, business is recovering.
Cecilia Silva-Díaz of Ediciones Ekaré, Spain–Venezuela discussed distribution difficulties. “We have to postpone new books and will move all spring books to autumn,” Silva-Díaz said. “Despite low sales, we still believe in [our titles].”
Silva-Díaz then drew attention to the state of independent bookstores, which, she said, “have always been very financially fragile”; they are seeing dramatically reduced sales now, and even in the cases of increased online sales, cannot compete with Amazon. In some Latin American countries, Silva-Díaz said, the situation is even direr, with few bookstores in business and the governments making the bulk of the purchasing decisions.
What the Future Holds
Russo then asked the panelists to elaborate on what they believe the imminent years will bring.
“There is one absolute green shoot in what I refer to as this forest of ambiguity that we find ourselves in,” Jensen began, saying the virus is a reminder that the world we live in is getting smaller, and that, despite the adage’s overuse, we really are in this together.
“Every child wants and needs to see beauty and goodness when the world seems dark,” Jensen continued. “A key objective that we undertake as children’s publishers is now and always has been to help kids deal with fear and hardship.” Jensen highlighted that children around the world who are now united even in their fears, concluding by saying that a forthcoming Japanese book acquired by Chronicle at Bologna 2019, There Must Be Something More Than That by Shinsuke Yoshitake, particularly resonated with him and gave him hope for the future of publishing.
Giraud agreed with Jensen, saying that as a publisher, she wants books that contemplate the beauty of nature and the world around us, as well as those that include more experimental thinking in order to encourage the children of the future. Giraud doesn’t believe that preserving the printed book industry should be the focus of publishing, as children during this time are behind screens and there is a great ecological impact of printing. As long as parents are reading with their children and sharing stories, Giraud said, that’s the most significant thing. She concluded by stating that, while Hélium’s list is small, the company is focused on staying in the game for the long-term, rather than releasing consistently large quantities of titles.
Al Qasimi feels that there will be a significant shift in the types of books published for children. Calling publishers “custodians of children’s literature,” she said the present moment has shown our values undergoing change, allowing us to reassess them. Asserting that we have necessarily shifted our priorities, Al Qasimi said, “That should be reflected in the types of books we’re going to be producing next year and the years ahead.”
Al Qasimi believes that future content will be “rich and important,” promoting a deeper understanding of what we need to look after. She believes content will “open doors for children to look after this planet in a more conscious way.” Al Qasimi also anticipates shifts in the publishing landscape, saying that she “sees digital taking a bigger role in our lives now.” Publishers once reluctant to dip their toes into the digital space are now more willing to take the plunge. Additionally, Al Qasimi believes a significant recalibration is forthcoming for educational publishing, as homeschooling has revealed that a lot of the current content is “weak” and “non-engaging.”
Thorp shared four key areas that Thames & Hudson is seeing that seem to be resonating currently: books that respond to children’s emotional needs and challenges, as the publisher works with strong illustrators and a range of styles to convey those emotions; books that have engaging elements (i.e., cut-outs, layers, etc.) that rely on their physicality; books on nature, which “we now appreciate so much more”; and books in the educational realm, especially bringing greater arts appreciation to children.
Despite the serious economic situation, Stock is optimistic about the future of children’s publishing. “Children’s books are the last to suffer,” she explained, saying that in Italy, companies choose children’s products as the last to cut. “During the last years, the publications for children have been focused on ‘good values,’” Stock said, admitting that she’s gotten bored by that. “I really hope that during these days, publishers will step back... and authors and illustrators will have a new spring of creativity.”
Tarhandeh said that in Iran, she expects serious financial crisis, with the number of new titles reduced by almost 50% at her company. However, she doesn’t believe the pandemic will have an effect on Iranians’ reading habits or preferred formats, believing that their market will continue favoring printed material: “E-publishing is an option, but not an obligation.” New marketing and distributing opportunities are on the horizon in the digital arena, she said, but a lack of internet policy means that the prospect of getting scammed still brings considerable risk.
As for future content, Tarhandeh expects more books about humanity, otherness, and “what it means to be free.” Emphasizing the importance of everyone in the industry, including librarians and booksellers, she said, “We need stories to give us hope, and of course, we need fairytales to promise us happy endings. That’s what we are working for.”
Russo then looked to Zhang for an update from China. “A consensus has been reached among the publishers: adaptability to online channels should be one of the most important criteria, from content, to marketing, to distribution,” she reported. “With all the new modes and platforms showing up during this time, we can say a new trend is emerging in China.”
Zhang highlighted the evolution of marketing during this time: online articles, short creative videos, and livestreaming by authors and editors have become popular. “Social video platforms provide a new space for book promotion and sales,” she said, adding that Daylight has made nearly 50 short videos and held more than 10 livestream shows since March. Additionally, series titles have been shown to perform better on online platforms during this time.
Zhang ended on an encouraging note, saying that there will not be a great reduction of titles in Daylight’s upcoming list. In fact, she believes the acquisition of foreign titles, especially nonfiction books, will increase.
Last but not least, Silva-Díaz weighed in. She confessed that she doesn’t know what the future normal looks like, saying that attending events and going to the library, book fairs, and book clubs will inevitably look different. However, she mused, “The world is quiet, and maybe the conditions are better for reading.”
During confinement in Spain, Silva-Díaz stated that reading is the third most popular activity in her country, after phone calls and screentime. She hopes that this increase in reading will prove sustainable in the post-pandemic future.
Russo and Pasoli ended the conversation on a note of profound thanks, professing their hope to see everyone in person at next year’s Bologna Book Fair, scheduled for April 12–15.