Four book industry CEO participated in “State of the Nations,” the gateway event of the inaugural BolognaBookPlus, the new industry-focused professional trade program of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, held on Tuesday. The panel, conducted over Zoom and moderated by U.K.-based publishing executive Richard Charkin, looked at how various publishers around the world coping with the fallout of the pandemic.
Hitting closest to home for Americans were the words of Roberto Banchik, CEO of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, Mexico who said for those in Mexico and Latin America, “the pandemic is still very much part of our lives,” and there are several countries, such as Argentina, that are once again closed. The big challenge for his company in Mexico was “getting books to bookstores and customers.” He noted that many booksellers do not have the same ability to shift to online sales like they did in the U.S., as the infrastructure for online bookselling simply was not there at scale. “Online sales have been growing, but not far enough and deep enough to cover demand.”
Chantal Restivo-Alessi, CEO, international foreign language and chief digital officer at HarperCollins, recounted the domino effect of helping people transition into remote work after seeing offices close around the world. “The first big challenge was communication management and, frankly, understanding what was happening.” She said that HarperCollins’s international network enabled everyone to learn from each other’s experiences She concurred that the supply chain has been challenging, and she saluted those who were able to keep stores and businesses open, even for limited periods throughout the year. “it was incredible what they were able to do," she said. Restivo-Alessi cited printers in Italy, for example, as having continued to operate throughout the pandemic, and credited similar resilience and tenacity for helping the industry overall bounce back rather quickly from the earliest blows of the pandemic.
Further afield, Louise Sherwin-Stark, CEO of Hachette Australia and New Zealand, agreed that supply issues were her firm’s biggest challenge, particularly as the company relies primarily on air freight for deliveries. “We have around 45,000 titles of which about 25,000 are supplied on demand, which means we’re not actually holding the stock in Australia. In a traditional year we’d air freight books in as we needed them, which would take about two weeks. But during the Covid year there were no planes, there are still no planes, so about 8,000 of those 25,000 we just can’t get them to Australia or New Zealand except by boat. In normal times a boat would take three months and now it’s taking six to eight months.” In turn, she says the company has increased printing in Australia and is looking to improve its overall logistics.
The person with the most dramatic story of all was Hakan Rudels, CEO of Sweden’s Bonnier Books, which had a record sales year, bought five publishing houses, and was bolstered by a robust business selling children’s books to homebound families. “Suddenly, we realized the pandemic would be a positive thing for us, which was really weird," he admitted. "I think many of us wrestled with this because people are dying and the world was in the biggest crisis more or less in modern times, and we had a fantastic business. . . it was being in publishing but in a way being in the dot.com era because you just saw sales increases that you had never seen before."
One unexpected silver lining of the pandemic, said Rudels, is that publishers are more confident now than a year or two ago. “Publishers have always been proud, but maybe not confident. I think that can change a lot for the future. Because this is a good business, self-sustaining in a way.”