In Beijing, the book business is holding its breath to see how the coronavirus outbreak will impact the lives and careers of its workers. Though the Chinese New Year holiday was officially prolonged to February 10 because of the virus, most colleagues at Duku, the publishing house where I serve as deputy editor-in-chief, started working from home over a month ago, on February 3.
At 8 a.m. sharp that day, Duku published a post on WeChat about how a virus affects the human body and how our immune system works to protect us. The post was by Zhu Shisheng, a doctor and IT engineer now living in Canada. Duku has just released his series of 14 short biographies of medical pioneers, among them Alexander Fleming, William Harvey, Edward Jenner, and Andreas Vesalius. The series shows how several of the most important medical discoveries were made and changed our world, and how these great people fought intellectual ignorance and cultural inertia in the process.
The post received more than 100,000 clicks in a short time and prompted the sale of 100 sets of the series that day. We were fortunate that, with most bookstores closed, we could still sell books at all; though some bookstores are starting to reopen, sales have fallen 90% since the start of the outbreak.
Fortunately for Duku, 60% of our sales come from online orders—but unlike other Chinese publishers, Duku has opted out of selling through the dominant online bookselling platforms, such as Dangdang (the largest online bookstore in China) and Amazon, due to their demands for excessive discounts. Likewise, we do not offer e-books. Instead, we rely on print book sales, many of which are made directly to customers through subscriptions or online promotions.
Online influencers, many of whom are still working, are also an important sales channel for us. One influencer, Diandian Mom, who runs a small reading club for parents and kids, recommended Zhu’s medical biography series five times last month, saying she found them very helpful when explaining the current situation to her child; she ultimately sold 64 sets.
Almost all editors at publishing houses are also now taking part in this kind of online marketing. Liu Ya, editorial director of our children’s imprint, Duxiaoku (which means “young Duku”), has been cycling an hour every day to our deserted office. Recently, she hosted a WeChat book club where she recommended books to 1,500 parents (a smaller number than usual), focusing on books about common diseases, nature, and viruses. She also recommended two YA books: one on understanding the media and another on becoming a doctor.
Orders are still coming in, but business is slower than usual. To cater to our customers, our warehouse staff returned to work on February 1. But deliveries around the country are taking longer—up to seven or eight days, from a typical delivery window of three to four. At least dealing with the complaints about slow deliveries has kept our customer service team occupied, as they, like me, continue to work from home. It also appears that the editing department can run smoothly for quite a long time under conditions like these.
Still, as a company, we are being forced to adjust our plans. Right now, we have colleagues who take turns working in the office every day. And printing is of particular concern to us. Though plants are gradually returning to work, there are not enough workers and our books will be delayed.
And it’s not just the production schedule we need to worry about. We had scheduled to move Duku’s warehouse from the suburbs of Beijing to an as-yet-unfinished warehouse in Nantong before June, and this too may be subject to change.
Although it seems things are getting under control, the question remains: what will happen if the virus continues to spread and the lockdown decree lasts much longer? No one knows.
Fangzhou Yang is the deputy editor-in-chief of Duku, an independent publishing company based in Beijing.