In a world in disarray, one where both publishing offices and bookstores are shuttered, digital service providers may be in the strongest position to stay resilient—and perhaps increasingly relevant—in the near term as the industry works to cope with the coronavirus crisis.
"We closed our offices several weeks and did a dress rehearsal of what it would be like if the entire company worked remotely from home," said Michael Tamblyn, CEO of Kobo, the e-book and audio bookseller. (The company has its main offices in Toronto and key locations in Darmstadt, Germany; Dublin, Ireland; and Taipei, Taiwan.) "The test gave us the opportunity to see what might break and to try to address any issues."
Kobo, which is owned by the Japanese company Rakuten, was quick to begin working with their retail partners abroad when signs of the coronavirus started to spread. "In Italy, we quickly saw surges in demand through our bookstore partners Mondadori and Feltrinelli," said Tamblyn. "Initially, we worked with [Italy's] Ministry for Technology, Innovation, and Digitization to give people in the first quarantined areas a code for a free book. Mondadori, for example, was fully committed and offered their whole catalog." That program has since expired, but Tamblyn said Kobo continues to have conversations with other publishers to see if there are other ways of offering assistance to people in self-quarantine in Italy and other impacted countries, including Canada and the United States.
Tamblyn noted that the "situation is fluid" in each country but says using Italy "as a leading indicator" suggests that countries will follow a similar pattern, which initially sees a spike in new account sign-ups followed by e-book and audiobook purchases in volume similar to those typical of a holiday period. "In addition to seeing new readers, we find that infrequent readers—those who usually only read one or two books a year—are reactivating their accounts," he said.
Asked if this is might be a tipping point moment in favor of digital content, Tamblyn demurred, but called the moment "a circumstance where digital can be helpful, where all the advantages that digital offers are amplified." He added: "We are encouraging publishers to work with us to help people get through this experience, and to reach readers at home and keep them reading."
Trip Adler, CEO of Scribd, concurred. "This is a big moment for the industry—we’re seeing people around the world express interest in reading while staying close to home, and Scribd is in the unique position to give people access to books, audiobooks, magazine articles, and more, whenever and wherever," he said. "It’s too early to really understand the impact that coronavirus and social distancing are going to have on digital content and the publishing industry as a whole, but I hope that through books, we can bring people some comfort during this time of uncertainty."
The company, which offers more than a million e-books and audiobooks for download, has seen "tremendous growth" and tens of thousands of new users coming to the platform in recent weeks. To help people cope with quarantine, the company has been offering credit card–free, 30-day free trials of the platform.
As for further promotions, Adler said the company remains in discussions. "On the publisher side, we've had a lot of great conversations with our partners about how we can add more of their content to the platform and drive more revenue," he said. "We’re also speaking with new potential partners who are enthusiastic about the opportunity to make their books available to readers across the world via Scribd. Overall, it seems like the community is coming together to encourage reading and make digital content easily accessible."
NetGalley and Edelweiss360
While Kobo and Scribd are well-positioned to cater to readers, booksellers, librarians, and other media remain key to letting people know what to read—particularly when the book is new to the market. This is where services like NetGalley and Edelweiss come in. NetGalley, which is owned by Massachusetts-based Firebrand Technologies, works with 300 publishers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, and Japan in offering digital review copies.
"We’ve heard many comments from existing clients that NetGalley is helping to keep their campaigns uninterrupted, and that digital review copies have become increasingly important to them right now—especially by allowing them to expand or adjust their promotional efforts when many physical efforts have ceased," said Lindsey Lochner, v-p of marketing engagement for NetGalley. "We’ve also seen increases in publishers mentioning that their titles are on NetGalley in their emails and on social media specifically geared to book advocates." The firm also runs consumer-facing sites Bookish and BookishFirst, that are ramping up offering additional book-related content, contests, and even events.
Like NetGalley Edelweiss offers digital review copies. The company is a subsidiary of Ann Arbor-based digital services provider Above the Treeline,which offers a suite of tools primarily oriented toward publishers, librarians and, primarily, independent booksellers. These including the aforementioned DRCs, as well as online publisher catalogs, and an event grid that allows bookstores to request authors to visit while on tour, and analytic tools
In January, the company moved aggressively into offering promoting direct to consumer sales with its new Edelweiss360 service, a tool for bookstores to market books directly to consumers through personalized emails. Edelweiss360 is typically a fee-based add-on to Edelweiss's services, but last week, Above the Treeline made it free for clients and customers who also use its Edelweiss+Analytics services.
"As the world has turned upside down and many of you have reduced hours, closed your stores to foot traffic, or closed temporarily altogether, we’ve been thinking about ways we can help," John Rubin, CEO and founder of Above the Treeline, wrote in an email to customers. "Our hope is that Edelweiss360 can help you stay connected to your customers and continue to serve them, even if your doors are closed."