The Inspire Symposium: Reflecting on the Impact of the Pandemic on Publishing Two Years On

With the second anniversary of the pandemic coming up, I thought I would reflect on where global publishing stands now and the progress we’ve made through solidarity building measures like the International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience (Inspire) initiative. The need for Inspire stemmed from the early research I led on the impact of the pandemic on publishers in 2020 and on the ground discussions and conversations I had as part of my member engagements upon assuming the IPA presidency in 2021.

In 2020, at the height of the global pandemic, there was a notable absence of industry leadership focused on uniting global publishing in solidarity. This leadership vacuum was filled by the Inspire initiative. In fact, Inspire stands out as one of the few times that I can remember when the industry was able to establish a global, multi-stakeholder, cross functional discussion on the future of publishing. In my view, the Inspire initiative is potentially a turning point in how publishers work in partnership with their peers across the publishing value chain.

For the last year, from February 2021 when the Inspire initiative was launched, to now, I’ve consulted over 150 senior publishing industry executives from across the industry value chain — including publishing houses, distributors, authors, educators, book fairs, and literacy and free-expression advocates. These consultations, which involved executives from more than 40 countries, culminated in the Inspire Symposium on February 17th.

Pandemic Lessons Learned

With the full set of findings from nearly two years of Inspire initiative discussions to be presented at the upcoming Bologna Book Plus event, I thought I would provide a preview of some of the key themes and priorities that emerged in the Inspire Symposium.

The Inspire Symposium began with opening keynotes by Audrey Azoulay, Director General of the Unesco, and Daren Tang, Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization. In their speeches, Azoulay and Tang emphasized the important role publishing played in the global pandemic — in many cases it provided an escape from isolation and a sense of community to remain connected to the world. They also stressed the role that publishing plays as a driver of economic growth and social progress that is best supported through multi-stakeholder approaches that include the entire publishing ecosystem. Their support is a reflection of Inspire’s renewed push to deepen cooperation with international organizations and forge new partnerships to facilitate industry recovery.

The Symposium then delved into findings from the Inspire workshops held in January around the priority themes of copyright, freedom to publish, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and technology and innovation. The workshops created a shared brainstorming space which uncovered a range of insights into what is happening on the frontlines of global publishing, with further findings reflected in a panel featuring representatives of authors, booksellers and data collection specialists.

Copyright is under threat from digitization: With the rise of digital publications and online sales to reach readers during the pandemic, there was a surge in digital piracy. High level of digital piracy exposed a need for enhanced enforcement mechanisms for physical and online piracy and piracy prevention campaigns that include the entire publishing value chain — including consumers and policymakers. In pushing for modernized copyright laws that accommodate emerging digital business models, there is also a need for better industry data collection and sharing to counter efforts aimed at weakening copyright protection and interest group pressure to offer free access to copyrighted works. Some Symposium participants suggested lack of access to books is an underestimated driver of consumer piracy which warrants more industry research. At the same time, innovations in delivering author royalties for used book sales, such as AuthorShare, have potentially transformative industry implications enabling creators to be more fairly compensated for their work.

Freedom to publish is an ongoing concern: Freedom to publish is a foundational human right asserted through strong legal foundations that protect freedom of expression and deter self-censorship. The legal foundations underpinning freedom to publish are further strengthened through industry solidarity that provides a counterbalance to government, social pressure, and vested interests. One emerging challenge that has become frequent in the global pandemic is the use of emergency powers to restrict expression — a government abuse of power that needs to be kept in check by the publishing industry’s role as a watchdog for free expression.

Sustainability is a multi-stakeholder imperative: Sustainability is an evolving concept as it applies to global publishing. There is a need for interventions at all stages of the supply chain including common reporting standards. Common reporting standards can drive evidence-based business cases for operational enhancements, such as increasing the uptake of recommerce and print on demand as an alternative to pulping, for example, and strengthening multi-stakeholder cooperation on sustainability involving consumers, policymakers, and the broader publishing ecosystem.

Diversity and inclusion require more industry and workplace attention: Common reporting standards can promote industry progress and workplace accountability. At the same time, inspiring the next generation of publishers requires targeting diverse, underrepresented youth and a commitment to addressing structural social inequality through more diverse representation in workplaces and books. Supporting indigenous language publishing is also critical to literacy, culture, and national identities.

Embracing technology and innovation can create new opportunities: Evolving business models, formats, sales channels, and consumer behavior require digital transformations which most smaller publishers are unprepared for. As the publishing industry faces competition for attraction from platforms and streaming, digital format and distribution innovation is critical. Enhanced copyright technologies and emerging decentralized strategies to fairly compensate content creators should be embraced ahead of the rise of Web 3.0. Booksellers, in particular, require a deeper cooperation with publishers to embrace digitally enabled business models and explore promising growth segments such as audio books and subscriptions.

What’s Next for Inspire?

The global pandemic has had an asymmetric impact on global publishing — some publishing markets have bounced back quickly while emerging publishing markets remain broken due to lack of digital infrastructure, larger publishers were more capable of embracing digital than small, independent publishers, and some publishing value chain players benefitted significantly while others faced ruin. In this chaos emerged strengthened ecosystem relationships.

Authors are finding more common ground with publishers, the broader ecosystem is united in their support for the recovery of book fairs, and there is an enhanced willingness between publishers and bookstores to jointly work together on a digital future. Despite exposing cracks in the foundation of global publishing, the pandemic has also strengthened publishing ecosystem cooperation and mutual respect. This solidarity catalyzed in adversity seems likely to be one enduring positive of the pandemic.

On February 24, 2020, Bologna Children’s Book Fair was one of the first major publishing events to make the hard decision to cancel its event due to the global pandemic. It is perhaps fitting that the next iteration of the Inspire Plan will be discussed and released at the upcoming Bologna Book Plus running from March 21–24 — almost 2 years after the global pandemic forced our industry to do much needed introspection to emerge more sustainable and resilient. I hope you will join me in attending.

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Bodour Al Qasimi

President of International Publishers Association; Founder and CEO of Kalimat Group, Kalimat Foundation and PublisHer network to empower women in publishing.