Confronting COVID-19: 'Publishers Weekly' President Discusses Book Industry Impact, Shares Hope
Publishers Weekly has been providing news to book businesses since 1872, weathering many world crises since then. While the coronavirus pandemic brings new challenges to the magazine and the book industry it serves, current technologies are enabling the publisher to adapt.
For one, Publishers Weekly is accepting digital galleys only for the first time in history, which allows its team to continue producing pre-publication reviews that the book industry relies on for marketing and sales. The publisher has also been working with international book fair organizers to come up with creative solutions to canceled events, including virtual trade shows.
“We’re in a funny position – we’re a magazine about books, so we have both our own needs in the magazine world and the needs of the book industry,” says George Slowik Jr., president and owner of Publishers Weekly. “But we’re still able to produce and have produced now four print issues via telecommunications.”
In the following interview, Slowik discusses how COVID-19 is hitting the book industry, what Publishers Weekly is doing to help, and why he remains hopeful about the book business through this pandemic.
How has the book industry been impacted by COVID-19 so far?
Well, the first challenge was the evaporation of the international fairs, the importance being the flow of new books in the future. Those fairs are where the rights are sold for the next season. Bologna [Children’s Book Fair] was the first to cancel and then change its dates further into May, and now they have come up with a virtual trade show, which we created for them. London Book Fair had to cancel as well; they were in April. London is a bigger fair and it’s adult and children’s. Smaller fairs like Leipzig and now Edinburgh, which is well into August, have been canceled. Domestically we lost the Texas Library Association and the American Library Association, so all of our big gatherings around which we do special efforts.
What effect will these cancellations have on the industry as a whole?
It really slows down future commerce. The book pipeline is an 18-month process probably, and there’s a lot of international trade, particularly the U.S. selling to the rest of the world. We only import about 3% of our books. There’s also the fact that all libraries are closed, an important component of the trade to booksellers, and that most independent bookstores are operating either as curbside operations or as online-only. And to top all that off, Amazon deprioritized books as a product.
What is Publishers Weekly doing to help?
The first thing we did is we started telecommunicating and telepublishing in early March just for the sake of our employees. Secondly, we opened up all of our content – that which is normally behind a paywall, our digital edition, and our 650,000-page archive – to full access to everybody. We took a cue from the newspapers who were opening up their COVID coverage. We felt it was more important just to make available whatever information that would help sell books.
We’ve met with the American Booksellers Association (ABA) … and we’re still working with them to disseminate information about which bookstores are offering what. If they’re closed but still offering curbside service or online that might be their lifeline. We’re also supporting Binc, a charitable group that deals with bookstores in trouble.
How is your team addressing issues stemming from COVID-19 in editorial coverage?
We’ve had a landing page of all of our COVID coverage, all of which is deliberately how can you do business during this time. We share with about 10 or 15 other national publishers through a group called PubMagnet, where we can post articles from their pages and share what’s going on in Italy, China, France, Spain, and vice versa, so it’s a collective to share best practices of whatever we’re hearing. The challenge for a publication like Publishers Weekly is that it’s quite horizontal across the industry from the author to the end consumer. You have the agent, the publisher, the bookseller, the librarian, and everyone else in between.
What has it been like shifting to a remote workflow?
I think we were educated a bit during Hurricane Sandy when our office was in blackout. Our server was 16 floors up and inaccessible, and we had to manage to get it out of our office and into another office of our IT people and had a handful of people putting out the issue. But it gave us fair warning of just how difficult it can or would be, so we were quite ready for this. I decided on a Monday that OK, it [coronavirus] is coming at us, and on a Tuesday we were all working from home with an issue due on Friday. We also have 10 different newsletters of various frequencies and we’ve gone off without a hitch.
What are your biggest concerns for your business?
The total collapse of the trade shows. The fact that publishers are pushing back their publishing schedules because so many bookstores and libraries are closed. All author tours are off, so they’re taking it on the nose. As they do, then they pull back on marketing, so we really have to come up with programs for when the market comes back so that we’re right on top of it. We do 9,000 book reviews pre-publication so that they can use that for not only their marketing for the publishers but also for the buying for the booksellers and librarians. Now what was meant to go on sale next week might not be on sale until August, so we’re planning on addressing that timing in various ways on the other end of this pandemic.
Is there anything else you feel is important to share?
On the whole, I just want to share hope. We’re going to get through this. The book business is a pretty resilient business even through incursions of new media, like when the ebook was going to be the end of the world and then the audiobook was going to be the end of the world. And in fact, those two outlets right now are really helping because they’re boosting sales. We’re content creators and it all comes down to that. You’re going to have 150 or 500 or 1,000 streaming services, but if they have lousy content they’re not going to last. What we have are seasoned publishers doing disciplined content and they just have to weather the storm.
Leah Wynalek is editor-in-chief of BRAND United. She is passionate about creating content that engages audiences across channels – and delivering insights that help others do the same.