The future hasn’t changed—it’s just been accelerated.” That’s a common take on the pandemic’s likely long-term impact, and it rings true. The extent to which white collar workers will return to their offices, students to their classrooms, and all of us to the comfortable privacy of video-less calls remains to be seen. But the forced acceleration of long-evolving trends toward more remote digital access to work, play, and learning activities—via Zoom, Teams, Houseparty, massive online open courses (MOOCs), etc.—seems likely to leave behind a changed societal and business landscape. After all, technology adoption is largely paced by the extent of behavioral change required. And once that change has occurred, there usually is no going back. (See: email, e-commerce, streaming entertainment, etc.)
I’m writing my first Digital Perspectives column from a secluded mountainside 120 miles from New York City. By early March I’d purchased a webcam and USB mic that are now integral to many of my personal, not to mention business, pursuits. Activities that had taken place in on-site group workshops or one-on-one training in New York City have moved, for the most part successfully, to Zoom and the like. Compromises in attention and nonverbal communication have been balanced by gains in convenience, accessibility, cost, and diversity of participants.
So far, though, my relationship to books hasn’t changed much. I still do most of my reading on my smartphone and Kindle, still buy print books and have them delivered, and expect soon to be browsing again in local bookstores. So, what does the accelerating shift to virtual modes of work, learning, and community mean for publishers?
At the margins, relative gains in format share by e-books and audiobooks seem likely, given more limited bricks-and-mortar retail options, library purchasing pressures that will result in shifts away from print, and, perhaps, improvements in the e-book reading experience. But greater opportunities for publishers to sustain and grow business in the (post-)Covid era may well stem from the ability to capitalize on newly adopted consumer habits and expectations and newly adopted technologies that can facilitate the marketing of books and their authors, and from the ability to streamline publishing interactions and workflows.
The shutdown of other media and entertainment sectors has sparked some of the most creative responses to the challenges imposed by the pandemic. For example, actors, musicians, and teaching artists are finding the shock of lockdown at least somewhat mitigated by the ability of live performances and training on Zoom et al. to reach larger, more geographically inclusive audiences. And similarly, an early shift to virtual book tours and online book promotion conferences has already begun to expand publishers’ marketing reach beyond urban and university centers. Social media initiatives like PRH’s “#BooksConnectUs” exemplify the publishing community’s opportunities to respond to the isolation borne of lockdowns and social distancing. While it’s likely that many booksellers will struggle to survive, publishers now have an opportunity to use the new popularity of videoconferencing and other remote access venues to help fill the consequent vacuum in personalized services to readers.
Concomitant opportunities to modernize the culture and operations of publishing companies, especially by the mainstream trade publishers, could be equally important. The whole idea of a New York City–centric trade publishing industry based on relationships nurtured by long lunches and cemented in Midtown high-rises, already increasingly anachronistic, now seems certain to be more rapidly supplanted. In its place will likely be a more geographically and socially diverse author-agent-publisher ecosystem, enabled by a more expansive communications infrastructure as well as new collaboration and networking norms and tools adopted in response to the pandemic.
A new study by Ithaka S+R of university presses found that “many presses have introduced more process reengineering in the last two months than in the last several years.” Educational publishers are moving to expand the availability of digital resources to supplement remote classes, and higher-ed textbook and scholarly publishers in particular are seeking new ways to navigate a shift from teaching by the book to teaching by the platform or MOOC (likely to accelerate and be accelerated by the greater decoupling of courses and campuses).
The scale needed to make serious commitments to post-pandemic virtual community initiatives and invigorate direct-to-consumer distribution models may provide the Big Five with even more advantages, and given the strong probability of diminished resources ahead for other publishers, more industry consolidation is likely. Still, exploiting new digital communications opportunities to foster reader communities in niche markets may help some independent publishers to thrive in the “new normal.” Cloud-based services can enable savvy small publishers to develop relationships with readers and get into the direct-to-consumer game much more easily and cheaply than ever.
In a society adapting to increased isolation and decentralization (and perhaps a new recognition of the value of expertise), the role of books in fostering dialogue and bringing together people and ideas can only grow in importance. To ensure that this promise is fully realized in a time of contraction and disruption, publishers should recognize that a more virtual, digital future is not as far away as it used to be and plan accordingly.
Steve Sieck is president of SKS Advisors, a consulting firm serving publishers and information services providers, and a partner in Publishing Technology Partners.