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Collective action can help publishing to thrive after pandemic

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After seismic shifts in the publishing industry over the last two years, a return to in-person meetings at the Frankfurt Book Fair signaled a positive development and offered a glimpse into the future for publishers.

Taking a hybrid approach to the trade fair this year – offering both in-person events and the ability to participate and network online – the Frankfurt Book Fair showed the way ahead for many in the industry. Enhancing the traditional model with parallel digital offerings appears to be the way forward. 

“There are certain markets that reported very positive results during the pandemic,” said Dr. Michiel Kolman, former President of the International Publishers Association and now Chair of its Inclusive Publishing & Literacy Committee. “I think the key here is that the more advanced a market is in terms of digital formats and ecommerce infrastructure, and the more developed the reading culture there, the more resilient it was to the pandemic.” 

A robust response 

The ability to use technology to adapt to the changing circumstances is what set many in the publishing industry apart in what was a remarkably difficult time. The question is: What’s here to stay? 

“We saw formats performing differently, as a reflection of changed human behaviour,” says Kolman. “Audiobooks saw an initial decline because people stopped commuting, whereas E-books went up because bookshops were closed. Print has remained very strong throughout.”  

“The great thing is lots of people turned to reading during the pandemic, for entertainment, enlightenment and for solace during isolation. For their part, publishers really rose to the occasion, providing books and educational materials for housebound students, and making research available for the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines,” says Kolman. “And what has become very clear now is that readers have very many different ways to get books from their favorite authors.” 

The road to recovery 

While those shifts to online bookselling and e-books may maintain their momentum in developed countries, says Kolman, comparable digital infrastructure may not be in place elsewhere.  

“Globally, the perspective is far more mixed,” Kolman says. “We’ve seen the shift to digital formats accelerated and made publishing sectors in many countries even better prepared for the years to come.” But questions of copyright issues and digital piracy remain for publishers in some countries. The goal of the International Publishers Association, then, is to bring actors from the global publishing industry together to confront the range of challenges they face, of which digital resilience is just one.  “We want to help further with upscaling in sectors that really took big hits.”  

“Overall, the pandemic has created an unexpected opportunity for the entire book ecosystem to open a new kind of dialog, not only among publishers, but right across the industry.”  

Hoping to improve cooperation among businesses across the publishing spectrum, the IPA announced the International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience (InSPIRe) program at Frankfurt. InSPIRe’s vision is to connect everyone, from authors, booksellers, educators and publishers, to printers, distributors, tech companies and libraries, to cocreate forward-looking solutions to the challenges facing the publishing industry.  

“We have a program around the Sustainable Development Goals. We heard that publishers needed guidance to get to grips with the SDGs, asking What do these 17 targets mean for my work? So last year the IPA and the United Nations developed the SDG Publishers Compact, 10 concrete steps that any publisher can take today. This year at Frankfurt we focused on the climate emergency, one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity today.” 

For example, publishers can select sustainable suppliers and other partners. 

According to Kolman, when it comes to tackling climate change, one thing is clear. “We cannot solve these problems on our own. The whole industry needs to take a collective approach for the necessary change to happen.”  

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In focus

Michiel Kolman

“Overall, the pandemic has created an unexpected opportunity for the entire book ecosystem to open a new kind of dialog, not only among publishers, but right across the industry.”  

Dr. Michiel Kolman

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