The Frankfurt Book Fair, running all this week, has provided a virtual forum for publishers to discuss how they have adapted to the changes caused by the global pandemic. True to its 2020 motto, Signals of Hope, conversations have been largely positive, with speakers all over the world emphasizing that the book business, while beleaguered, has proven surprisingly resilient and, contrary to cliché and accusations of being mired in the past, adaptable to the new conditions of bookselling and publishing.
The tone was set during the opening ceremony of the Fair on Tuesday, which featured Israeli author David Grossman offering taped comments from his home in Jerusalem. “When I was asked to speak about hope, I thought it prescient. Israel had the highest number of per capita virus cases in the world. How can I talk of hope, when the reality I am living in brings so much despair.” Referring to the act of participating in the Frankfurt Book Fair from such a long distance and through a video screen, he remarked, “Perhaps this is how I may find the strength to act against the gravitation of anguish and sadness which I have felt.” Earlier, Grossman had remarked that the community of writers and publishers persisted, whatever the challenges, and perform what he called a “vital act. . .a small repair of the overall dissonance of the great disruption of reality.”
The message of publishing’s resilience was reinforced throughout the first three days of the fair, in official forums, such as Frankfurt’s own conferences and B2B professional program, to unofficial events, like the ReBoot conference, which took place on Tuesday morning as the fair started. Many speakers overlapped and were faces familiar to Frankfurt regulars. Here are some highlights from the dozens of hours of programming so far.
Book sales have rebounded
Lockdowns that shut down bookstores had everyone worried across the world in the early days of the pandemic and March and April were terrible for book sales, but many in the publishing community were able to shift their focus quickly toward e-commerce. Andre Breedt, managing director of Nielsen Book, which tracks book sales in a dozen countries, spoke as part of the ReBoot conference, and said that while it was hard to compare countries directly, as each have different publishing and bookselling environments, it was clear that “for some weeks, virtually no books were sold, and clearly that is not the case now.” In several instances, countries had a boom in book sales as they came out of a lockdown. In Australia, for example, it has been a “Christmas-like environment” for some time, Breedt said. Breedt did offer a note of caution, and said that certain trends were at play, such as parents hoarding education materials, to cite one example, that helped bolster sales and it was uncertain if sales could continue at this level. “We saw that in the U.K. people said they were now reading an additional 2.7 hours a week than they were before,” said Breedt. “But I want to emphasize that this doesn’t always translate to new purchases, as people are often reading what is already on their shelves.”
John Ingram, chairman of Ingram Industries, said the company saw a near-instant 300% hike in its direct-to-consumer business when the lockdowns started in the U.S., but the company also faced challenges, such as keeping up with the summer surge of interest in books on race and social justice issues and political books. In Poland, Sonia Draga, president of the Sonia Draga Publishing Group, said her company, which includes two publishing houses and four bookstores, was fortunate enough to have invested in their own warehouse and distribution center, as well digital hub to provide e-book sales direct to consumers. The result has been no disruption in the company’s activities, she said.
Germany’s publishing and bookselling community bonded together. Marco Verhülsdonk, head of digital marketing for Kiepenheuer & Witsch described how the publishing house looked to support booksellers by staging a four-hour online recitation, broadcast on YouTube, with 53 top German-languages authors reciting the names of some 4,000 independent bookstores in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. When the lockdown shuttered Thalia, Germany's largest bookselling chain with 400 stores, the company shifted to online sales and launched Shopdaheim, German for “Shop at Home, a program that provided independent booksellers with logistical support to help them sell online as well. “I believe people will return to the high street stores,” said Thalia CEO Michael Busch. “If the pandemic has shown us anything it is that personal relationships are key and that people are already relying too much on technology.”
Something similar took place in Brazil where publisher Companhia das Letras reached out to indie booksellers with a guide to setting up e-commerce, launched #LeiaEmCasa, a campaign to encourage people to read at home, and even offered bookstores loans to ensure they would have working capital. “If they didn’t have money, they couldn’t’ buy our books,” said Lilia Zambon, Companhia’s marketing manager.
Waterstones and B&N
In an interview on Wednesday, James Daunt, CEO of both Waterstones in the U.K. and Barnes & Noble in the U.S. said, “sales were strong in local community environments, and catastrophically down in big urban centers where there are no longer workers.” He noted that new lockdowns in the U.K. resulting from the recent wave of infections has been a blow and cited the example of the Waterstones stores in Liverpool, where sales immediately plunged 75%. One way to bump up sales he said was to enhance the company’s ability to offer “click-and-collect” services, where customers buy online and then pick up the book at a store.
While books sales for Waterstones and B&N “are pretty robust” it’s “the online channel is getting the lion’s share of that,” Daunt said. Asked about B&N.com, Daunt said the company was making big investments into the online stores, as well as trying to reinvigorate Nook, which he said is “just as capable as its competitor,” though none of these investments are likely to show results for 12 to 18 months, he said. Daunt added that he doesn’t fear competition from other retailers selling books, which he views as mere gateway retailers to real bookstores. “If they buy a book from Target or Walmart, they are starting a home library. It will eventually lead them to us.” Winning sales back form Amazon, he admitted, was a much bigger concern. “It’s a brilliantly challenging bookselling moment,” he said.
Jonathan Karp, CEO of Simon & Schuster, was among the American executives taking part in Frankfurt panels. He described how he helped transition the company to working at home and explained that he doesn't see anyone "getting into elevators" before there is a vaccine. Karp said he is staying in touch with staff by holding virtual meetings three times a week with groups of ten at a time, a practice he has dubbed "Java with John."
Asked about other factors impacting this year, Karp said that the closing of independent bookstores had been a blow, but the company still had a great year, with titles including #1 bestsellers, Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough and Fredrik Bachman's Anxious People. He also touted the company's launch of Avid Reader Press, which is publishing just 30 books a year, including Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (January, 2021), a book he says "he loves the most," which is a novel about an undocumented family moving from Colombia to the U.S., and find it no better than what they left behind.
Speaking about conditions in the U.S. in general, Karp said, "There is tremendous polarization and lack of faith in our institutions right now. Questions of how we rebuild these institutions will be at the center of the conversation for years to come."
For further insight into the U.S. market, see a videotaped panel discussion hosted by PW editorial Jim Milliot, with Kelly Gallaher, head of content acquisition for Ingram Content Group; Peter Hildick-Smith, president of the Codex Group; and Tanya McKinnon, founder of the McKinnon Literary Agency. The video is part of a series of 10 segments covering world markets, including Brazil, China, Finland, Germany, Slovenia, South Asia, the Spanish-language markets, Russia, and the U.K.