Sharjah: Self-help books, e-books, and books at discount supermarkets “flourished” during the COVID-19 pandemic even as others went out of business, the ‘10th Publishers Conference’ heard in Sharjah on Sunday.
Children’s books also fared relatively well, Perminder Mann, CEO of Bonnier Books UK, said in her video message at the “hybrid” event, which is seeing over 300 publishers from many countries participate in person or virtually over three days at Expo Centre Sharjah. Her comments were mainly focused on the UK, where parents have been buying children’s books as educational tools for distance learning and books to support their “mental wellbeing”, she added.
“Adult readers have also been seeking solace from books during the lockdown,” with sales rising in topics related to “self-sufficiency”, nature, environment, gardening; “anything to take us away from our screens” as many people globally were forced to work from home during the lockdowns. Moreover, “stories of hope and inspiration” continued to sell in “huge numbers”. Also, “skyrocketing” rates of new dog ownerships in the spring lockdown also apparently led to “a roaring success” of books about puppies and dogs. Additionally, “as customers increasing sought familiarity and nostalgia in their purchases this year, we’ve seen that classics, the old favourites, have ruled”. As people were stuck at home due to movement restrictions, “naturally we’ve also seen boosts in online sales, audio books and e-books”, Mann added, saying publishers have had to “sharpen up” their online offerings.
However, it has “certainly been tougher for debut launches as it’s often harder for people to make new discoveries online, especially when you compare the online browsing experience to the luxury of browsing through a book display in your local book shop”. Also, sales at brick-and-mortar shops “proved more challenging”, with some independent bookshops “possibly not surviving” if there are further lockdowns in the “second wave” of COVID-19.
Hybrid book fairs?
The conference is being held as a forerunner to the 39th Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), which will be held from November 4 to 14 at Expo Centre Sharjah. This year, due to COVID-19 precautions, SIBF, organised by Sharjah Book Authority (SBA), will have a hybrid offline and online cultural programme of speakers and authors. Even after the pandemic, such a mixed model could continue globally at book fairs, SBA chairman Ahmad Al Ameri said in his welcome opening address at the conference on Sunday.
“This exceptional session of [SIBF 2020] is viewed as the beginning of a new future model for book fairs around the world even after the end of the coronavirus crisis, God willing,” Al Ameri said.
“What the world witnessed demonstrated the need for the publishing sector to expand opportunities for cooperation and joint work between publishers, and stressed the need to respond to the rapid technical changes. We renew our commitment to the vision and orientations of the Sharjah Cultural Project, which was established by His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah.
“We affirm that the book is able to overcome all the challenges that pass by the world and the need of nations to the book is a need to rise and create a more secure and civilised future. Today we open a new page of the Publishers Conference in its 10th session, to confirm that the publishing industry, as much as it is a creative industry that serves cultural reality, is an industry that needs plans and standards to advance its reality.”
Virtual entry tickets?
Speaking afterwards in her video message, Mann said onsite sales at book fairs would continue alongside online sales for such events, adding that the “touch and feel factor with children’s books is particularly crucial”. She added that the advantages of the hybrid model include connecting “virtually with a global audience with no time disruptions and no travelling”, thereby saving costs and shirking the carbon footprint. However, “the challenge is monetisation – how do we make money by operating like this?”, Mann said. “Selling virtual tickets seems like a sensible route. While the income from a single ticket will be possibly lower, it will attract a much larger global audience and could be commercially fruitful,” she added.
Day one wrap
The first day of the conference saw three panel discussions on surviving the pandemic; how virtual events and social media are connecting publishers and readers; and finding new audiences via translated books. More than 30 speakers are due to speak during the course of the three-day event. Speakers on Sunday at the conference included Ravi DeeCee, CEO of DC Books in India; and via video links Nicolas Roche, Managing Director at BIEF in France; and Sherif Bakr, Director of Dar Al Arabi for Publishing and Distribution in Egypt. The day’s programme ended with a session on how to apply for the SIBF Translation Grant, a $300,000 (around Dh) fund exclusively available to participants at the conference.
Gvantsa Jobava from Intelekti Publishing in Georgia; Judith Curr, President of HarperOne in Amistad and Rayo – HarperCollins in the US (in a video message); Khoula Al Mujain, SIBF General Coordinator in the UAE, and moderator Jason Bartholomew, CEO of Midas in the UK, were among other speakers on the conference’s first day.
Traditional and e-publishers from around the globe, rights professionals, publishing consultants, lawyers and other industry experts are participating in the event, which is hosting eight panel discussions on the key issues and challenges facing the publishing sector in the region and around the world.