The first official day of the Bologna Children's Book Fair, June 14, offered the day-long, virtual conference “Forging Forward - An Interruption, or an Opportunity to Rethink," which focused on the impact of the global pandemic. Chaired by Bodour Al Qasimi, president of the International Publishers Association, and Richard Charkin, founder of Mensch Publishing, the conference featured several bold-faced names as speakers, including Turkish author Elif Shafak, who was in conversation with Al Qasimi. The conference focused on several themes, including fostering the next generation of readers, sustainability, and education. The full conference is available to view on demand until July 31 for paid registrants.

“This is a key day in the history of BCBF because, for the first time in our 58-year history, in addition to the 200 plus events for BCBF, we have brought together in Bologna, albeit virtually, representatives of the global publishing industry to discuss together the central issues for the entire publishing industry in this particular moment,” said Elena Pasoli, director of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, who noted that children's publishing was also widely represented throughout the program.

The day's first session, Changing Reading Habits and Securing the Next Generation of Readers: What, and How They'll Be Reading, and the Place of Technology, looked at how publishers around the world have responded to the changing requirements of customers during the pandemic. The panel included Deborah Ahenkorah Osei-Agyekum of Accord Literary and African Bureau Stories of Ghana; Felicia Low-Jimenez of Difference Engine, an independent comics publishing house based in Singapore; and Fathima Dada, managing director for education at Oxford University Press, based mainly in South Africa.

Once the pandemic struck, Low-Jimenez said the Difference Engine made the decision to shift all its events for children online, and discovered quickly that developers speak a different language than publishers. It partnered with a sister company to develop a free website with comics content, plus supporting material, much of it bite-sized for the short online attention span of the audience. Low-Jimenez added that online sales have been challenging and discoverability more complicated online, not least because online retailers too had been closed during lockdown. As a response, the company built its own online capability.

While digital content has been the main offering of the past year for the company, Low-Jimenez said print remains in demand, with parents in particular worried about how long their children spend online and therefore keen to encourage engagement with print media as a respite.

In Africa, Osei-Agyehum said, some 95% of books are imported, meaning local publishers faced huge competition. The continent is not yet engaged in a significant conversation about e-books, although most consumers in Africa now have mobile phones with digital connections, something not the case even five years ago. In addition, there is a huge skills gap to be addressed, with publishers needing to invest in homegrown writers, illustrators and content producers—something that is beginning to happen, kickstarted by the huge changes of the past year.

OUP’s Dada noted that OUP’s education division operates in 170 countries and said that every market was affected by the pandemic. One silver lining of the crisis was a move towards a less Oxford-centric model, with staff around the world able to contribute more equally to products within a virtual environment. The pandemic had, however, highlighted the enormous inequality of digital access. Those markets already accustomed to using digital produce transitioned quickly, while others found the switch to online content much more challenging. A recent report by OUP found that 79% of respondents felt digital barriers had made a significant impact on their learning outcomes during the Covid crisis.

Despite the advance of digital products over the past year, panelists were convinced of the enduring strength of the print and of the importance of offering consumers print and digital options.

Building Global Audiences

The Taking Global Local panel focused on building global audiences for brands and was introduced by Allen Lau, CEO of Wattpad. “Right now is an incredibly exciting time for publishing and entertainment, because these two industries are in a period of disruption, with an increasingly influential and global digital internet culture, redefining nearly every aspect." Lau said. "At the same time, local entertainment has can now find global audiences like never before.” He touted the work of Anna Todd, whose After books have become bestsellers and been adapted by Netflix.

Books-to-screen work is also the job of fellow conference panelist Sidharth Jain of StoryInk in India, a company which sources books for adaptations and has done more than 150 deals in the past three years. Jain said that before Storylink started, few films in India were based on books. While the pandemic forced Storylink to rethink how it works and resulted in a decline in transactions, revenue has doubled.

Mette Hammerich Caserta of Saga Egmont, the largest digital publisher in Denmark, now offers some 50,000 digital publications and some 20,000 audiobooks across 30 languages. Caserta noted that part of their success was the rapid adoption of subscription platforms by Danes as well as Saga's ability to remain nimble enough to expand their publishing program to Germany several years ago. “We can condense our journey of expansion into a few key points,” Caserta said. "One is the willingness to invest a large amount of money in building a national publishing infrastructure. Second, it's the ability to think both global and local into the framework of expansion. So, when you enter a market you see what is in that market and you try to adapt. And then I think it was also joining early enough that there was so much unchartered territory—we only had a few other competitors in what we were doing at that point.”

Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca Entertainment, asserted that any property a publisher invests in today must be global, and cited two reasons. "The first reason is economic. Say you purchase or create a video game or a TV series. In order to recoup the investment, the property needs to go global. If you try to recoup your money by just catering to a local market, say in Italy or another country in Europe, you will not recoup [your money]. The second reason is simple: because it works: kids are hyper-connected and it is a big pity not to take advantage of that."

Charkin wrapped up the day's events succinctly by reminding everyone of one simple truth. Quoting a person he called “his favorite old publisher,” Sir Stanley Unwin: “The first duty of a publisher is to remain solvent,” Charkin quoted. “Whatever else happens, we must stay in business.”

BookBrunch contributed content to this article.