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South East Asia: Publishing in the times of pandemic: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Wednesday 2 September 2020, by siawi3

Source: https://shuddhashar.com/it-was-the-best-of-times-it-was-the-worst-of-times-prashant-pathak/

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Prashant Pathak

August 31, 2020

You will all be amazed to know of a case where a publisher tied up with food delivery services to help deliver books. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, they say.

Quoting Dickens is the closest that I can get to, whenever I attempt to define the state of book publishing amidst the pandemic. We are all privy to how our personal lives have been adversely affected as we walked into the grip of this simmering storm called COVID-19. Quite obviously, businesses have had no different a fate; businesses have had to really battle their way to stand ground. Very few have managed to, few but not all. I sought to evaluate the consequences of the pandemic’s unprecedentedness on the book publishing business in South East Asia, and here’s what I found.

Creatively, it has been a time for deep reflection, to unwind and unlearn what we already knew about book publishing, to rise above a pomposity that comes from ‘knowing the business’ for far too long—they say, sometimes, what you miss out is also what’s right before your eyes. Since it is a time of altered businesses, restructuring economies and ever-changing regulations, business itself needs to evolve to meet those changes. This reflects in how publishers in India, who were so far practising restraint towards digital publishing, have now opened up their doors like never before. They have realised how important it is, to diversify their content and to keep it accessible in different formats across media. Over the years, there has been a constant debate on whether investing digitally was ‘good enough’ for the business, and needless to say, we all had our doubts. But, when everything stood still, it was digital sales of content that picked up massively, and well, it still continues to do so. This has created a whole new breed of leadership and brought in some revenues to the publishers who have been prepared enough to sell digitally. In fact, those who were not, also caught up or still are. Like I said, we unlearnt, and we evolved! That is telling enough to make me believe that we will see digital sales of books growing in the coming months.

This change has also brought with itself, an increase in the sale of printed books through online marketplaces. Since the brick and mortar stores have had to shut shop, either completely or have had to remain open under strict regulations, or are still closed in a few countries, publishers who had so far shied away to get on to e-marketplaces, have for the first time gone online. That also plays out very well for the new lockdown-reader who has a massive appetite as he stays indoors, and needs books in addition to the online streaming services—they now have access to more content. For households with children, parents still dissuade the young ones from excessive screen time, and that is where a gap can be filled by children’s publishers like myself. It is a win-win! In fact, a lot of publishers I have interacted with personally, mentioned that they reaped a lot of better returns as well. It was a case of nothing against something. However, what’s really happened for better in terms of logistics is this—it has been strengthened like never before, so as to be able to reach the last mile, to make it to the places which nobody cared for earlier. You will all be amazed to know of a case where a publisher tied up with food delivery services to help deliver books. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, they say.

However, the situation has come with a lot of minuses for sure. In fact, it has brought back our attention to the laxity that already perturbs our trade. First things first, we are still a trade and not an industry, here in India. This is, in fact, true for a lot of countries, including India, where I come from. During the pandemic, while many industries were bailed out by governments across the globe by either providing aids, sops or subsidies, it was hardly seen in our region (South East Asia). Neither publishers nor their employees are covered for any benefits in case of any calamities. This necessitates immediate attention and action, especially if we, as a global community, aspire for our future generations to learn and be educated in a way that still relies heavily on books.

Secondly, the Southeast Asian region has always been price-sensitive and is retailed at half the cost in comparison to other parts of the world, especially the West. This leaves publishers with very little margin. Moreover, we already run a business on 100% credit, with a major chunk of our business following ‘Sale-on-Return (SOR)’ clauses. This is particularly true for trade publishers, or in my case, a mass-market children’s book publisher.

In addition to that, the pandemic brought in a great crunch of cash flow to publishers due to the credit situation—the markets were closed, and no transactions were taking place. One of the biggest worries for publishers in our region is to find a way to get the money back from the market or even to get the stock back.

In times of social distancing, the malls, high streets and airports are all closed for public safety. And that is the need of the hour. But, it has also brought the retail chain stores in distress. The nightmare is now not how to recoup the money from them but a fear that they might defunct and result in bad debts for publishers dealing with them. These are on-ground challenges that are real for any publisher in our region in terms of operating the business.

Add to that, the creative side of business is also hampered with publishers trying to bank on big names that could bring them sure-shot revenues, and are having to rethink trusting new talent at this time. We aren’t pulling the plug on them, but we have no choice but to delay the release of those books that are authored by a newbie. Though inevitable, it is quite a dangerous scenario because this way, we will hardly have any room for the new voices.

This is a time that calls for some serious introspection; we need to reflect on where we are and where we want to go from here. We must, at this moment, address the positives and also take a hard look at the challenges to make more informed business decisions—those that will benefit the reader and in turn be lucrative for business. We certainly need to discuss and deliberate on all the negatives and find a solution towards tackling the ‘new normal’ so we can make it towards a ‘better normal.’

Here’s to that!

Prashant Pathak has over 15 years of experience in the publishing industry. Currently, he is Publisher with Wonder House Books. At Wonder House, he creates engaging content and attractive designs for ages 0-8. Wonder House has been the fastest growing children book Publisher in the last 2 years with over 700 titles.