The continuing spread of the new coronavirus is sowing uncertainty across many parts of the book world. Already, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, originally set for March 30–April 2, has been moved to May 4–7 following an outbreak of the virus in northern Italy. Reed Exhibitions issued a statement last week saying its London Book Fair will proceed as planned on March 10–12 but added that it is tracking developments.
Even as LBF moves ahead, late last week word began circulating that a growing number of Americans will skip the fair. A Simon & Schuster spokesman said that “out of concern for the health and safety of our employees,” the company has decided not to attend LBF. The spokesman added that staff that was planning to attend are “looking into alternate means to conduct meetings with their contacts in the international publishing community.”
Another major U.S. publishing player, the Ingram Content Group, said it has decided to curtail travel in light of the outbreak and will not attend LBF. Some American agents said they are staying home as well.
Several international events featuring Chinese exhibitors and guests have been canceled, but the Chinese stands at LBF will be open and staffed by employees from the exhibitors’ London offices. There are also reports that some publishers, agents, and service companies from Japan and South Korea will be unable to attend LBF.
The International Toy Fair, which counts more than 30 publishers among its exhibitors, canceled its China Pavilion during the fair’s February 22–25 run in New York City (see “Book-Toy Synergies”).
At the same time North American publishers and agents consider their options for LBF, they are also working on ways to cope with the rescheduled Bologna fair. Most are working to reschedule appointments, hoping that attendees from other countries will agree to shift their existing meetings to the new dates. “It has been hectic trying to reschedule,” said Derek Stordahl, executive v-p and general manager of Holiday House. “The goal is to get everyone to move over their appointments to May and keep things routine.”
At Owlkids Books in Toronto, publisher Karen Boersma said the bigger question will be “whether publishers decide that they are not going to go at all this year given the change in dates and the uncertainty around the outbreak of COVID-19 in Italy.” She added that her company is making arrangements for teleconferencing, should remote meetings become necessary: “There were already quite a few publishers and agents from Asia who had decided not to attend. We were already working on plans to set up Zoom or Skype meetings with those partners to present our new titles, and we may decide to expand those efforts. Long story short: we’re in wait-and-see mode right now.”
While publishers, editors, and agents grapple with how best to handle the London and Bologna fairs, publishers’ production and supply chain teams are working on how to lessen the impact of the shutdown of printing plants in areas of China where the coronavirus originated. Interviews with several industry members confirmed that some books printed in China have been delayed, even as plants there slowly ramp back up. “Quarto, like many other toy and book manufacturers, is experiencing production delays in China,” said Ken Fund, chief operating officer of Quarto, who was at Toy Fair. Quarto is “actively looking at alternative solutions outside of China for production,” he added.
“We are reviewing the production status with our printers of each of our titles, some of which have experienced delays,” said a spokeswoman for Penguin Random House.
Michael Jacobs, CEO of Abrams, noted that some Abrams works produced in China have also been delayed.
Simon & Schuster has adjusted pub dates for a few fall titles in order to accommodate its most-impacted printers, the company spokesman said.
All publishers are frustrated about the uncertainty over when the situation will return to normal. The PRH spokeswoman said there is some optimism that things will begin to improve toward the second half of March.
Ellie Berger, executive v-p and president, Scholastic Trade Publishing, said Scholastic expects China operations to be back on track this spring, but she added that the company “will continue daily communications with vendors as well as develop contingency plans should delays continue.”
Jacobs said supply chain issues could go on for some months, “or at least until it’s clearer when workflow, labor, and freight transport” will return to their regular patterns.
As Jacobs alluded to, printing is only one part of the problem for publishers that manufacture in China—getting books to the U.S. is the other. Ray Ambriano of Meadows Wye & Co., an international logistics company specializing in the publishing industry, said shipping loads since early February have been light, suggesting that factories are having difficulty getting back up to full speed. He—and others—expect a surge in demand for ships when production returns to normal, which could cause problems. Publishers are worried, Ambriano said, about whether ships will be in the right positions to carry full loads.
The PRH spokeswoman said that due to some canceled sailings, finding reliable transportation is a “fluid situation, which we are monitoring closely.”
The fact that the outbreak of the coronavirus occurred so shortly after the increase in tariffs on books made in China has resulted in some printing returning to the U.S., though it’s unclear how much has returned. Jacobs noted that Abrams has been shifting more of its book production out of China over the past three years, explaining that the country now represents “considerably less” of the publisher’s overall volume than it did five years ago. “The tariffs and now the coronavirus scare have only solidified our strategic plan and accelerated our tactics to move the proportions of our production sourcing to North America where and when we can,” he added.
Both PRH and Scholastic have also transferred titles out of China when necessary. “We have had very few supply chain disruptions to date, which we have managed through moving work domestically,” Berger said.
Despite the various uncertainties over book printing in China, Ambriano said it is not time to panic: “There are concerns, but it is too early to predict if this is an extreme crisis or just an issue to be managed.”