Canadian publishers’ experience over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic will be familiar to colleagues around the world. The unexpected shutdown of retail, schools, and libraries; disruption to local and international supply chains; dramatic declines in tourism; and widespread cancellation of events have negatively affected revenues and contributed to unprecedented market uncertainty. Cash flow concerns remain paramount for independent presses, and despite the swift delivery of emergency support by the federal government, a return to regular business is not yet on the horizon. On average, independent English-language publishers anticipate a sales decline of approximately 50% this year, with a long period of recovery to follow.
As of late September, Covid-19 case numbers are on the rise in most parts of Canada, and anticipation of future stay-at-home orders is growing in step with that curve. Thanks to experience gained this spring, publishers, distributors, and retailers will be better prepared to respond to what might come, but long-standing characteristics of the Canadian marketplace that made the business challenging for independent presses before the pandemic remain heightened.
High on that list is an accelerating trend toward online book discovery and purchase. In an environment where many Canadian communities do not have access to physical bookstores, and with opportunities for in-store browsing currently diminished in those that do, enhanced metadata and digital marketing are essential to facilitate online purchasing. Before the pandemic, Canadian publishers competed with book publishers from around the world, and today they are working harder than ever to ensure that Canadian writers get the attention they deserve when competing with imported titles that dominate local bestseller lists.
Online retail has offered Canadian readers continued access to books in 2020. At the height of the pandemic, online represented close to 70% of all retail book sales. Past investment on the part of independent publishers in online storefronts and infrastructure allowed e-commerce to fill in gaps left by retail closures and supply chain disruption, but Amazon has benefited from the bulk of those sales. The cost of shipping and postage makes online selling a challenge for all other retailers. Industry groups, including the recently formed Canadian Independent Booksellers Association, have called on government to reintroduce the Canada Post book rate, which would help level the playing field.
Long-standing legal and public policy challenges have also come to light over the last six months. The K–12 and postsecondary sector remains largely unlicensed for educational copying and continues to rely on copying guidelines that the Federal Court of Canada found to be unfair back in 2017—in a decision that was upheld by the Federal Court of Appeal this spring. Teachers, instructors, and professors are working hard to adapt the way they deliver education to students; collective licensing remains a flexible and affordable option to repurpose content, while ensuring creators and publishers are remunerated fairly. A strong copyright framework encourages investment, innovation, and experimentation—all factors that will be essential to the industry’s recovery after difficulties imposed by the pandemic recede.
Despite an uncertain outlook, there are bright spots. Demand for e-books and audiobooks through public libraries skyrocketed through the spring, with many library systems investing in digital collections and many readers experimenting with these formats for the first time. Online storytimes, made possible by free temporary licences offered by children’s publishers, entertained the youngest Canadian readers while bringing some relief to harried parents. Canadian literary events have gone online, connecting authors with new audiences across Canada and around the world. And independent bookstores are serving their customers in new ways, with many offering online shopping for the first time. Consumer sales captured by BookNet Canada between early June and mid-September are tracking ahead of 2019 numbers for the same period, which is an encouraging sign and reason for cautious optimism. All of this reinforces the continued relevance of books—for entertainment, education, and escape.
Though how long this crisis will last remains unknown, for now it seems that Canadian publishers will continue to face a range of challenges in early 2021 and beyond. An uncertain retail market, vulnerable supply chain, and myriad sales and marketing challenges will demand resilience, agility, and innovation to support recovery. These characteristics are inherent to independent publishing, and Canadian companies who are experienced in adapting to challenging market conditions with nimble and market-responsive strategies are well positioned to experiment and evolve as the year unfolds. Bringing Canadian writing to readers at home and internationally remains the top priority.
Kate Edwards is the executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers.