Time for Solidarity: Challenges and Opportunities in Global Publishing in the Post-pandemic World

From August to October 2020, I interviewed 33 senior publishing executives in 30+ countries about the impact of the global pandemic on their national publishing industries. The findings from these discussions formed the basis of the International Publishers Association’s report From Response to Recovery: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Publishing Industry.

In speaking to publishers around the world for the pandemic impact study, nearly all highlighted the importance of solidarity to recovery. So, as I started to think about my priorities as incoming IPA President, supporting publishers associations and publishers in weathering the pandemic and rebuilding stronger was at the top of my agenda.

One of my first initiatives as IPA President was to translate industry calls for increased solidarity into tangible action. To do so, I formed a task force — now called the International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience (Inspire) Plan Taskforce — to lead an extensive industry consultation to identify key pandemic-induced challenges facing publishers and crowdsource recommendations on the way forward.

What makes this consultation different than others is the intentional inclusion of a broader spectrum of the publishing ecosystem — like printers, bookstores, libraries, authors, educators etc. — to build on the industry solidarity galvanized in the pandemic. The 1st achievement of the Taskforce was the Inspire Charter which is receiving support from a growing number of publishing stakeholders as a symbolic commitment to continuing the high level of industry-wide cooperation that emerged in the pandemic.

From July to August 2021, I have personally spoken to 50+ stakeholders to seek their endorsement of the Inspire Charter. The Inspire Charter and Plan have really struck a chord with stakeholders. My outreach has mostly been met with stakeholders praising the initiative as well-timed and much needed. As I continue these discussions, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the themes that have bubbled up from these conversations.

We Can’t Go Back to Where We Were Before

The Inspire Charter and Plan capture so much of the prevailing industry sentiment that the pandemic is a watershed moment for change in the publishing industry and a time for focusing on shared values and objectives. Based on my conversations, there is widespread agreement that the publishing industry cannot go back to where it was pre-pandemic, and enhanced cooperation across the entire publishing value chain is required to reinvigorate the industry, bridge opposing interests, and realize opportunities from accelerated digitization.

While many of the entities I have spoken to are themselves undergoing internal organizational reviews, the need for a more interconnected, cooperative publishing ecosystem is widely shared. In fact, many consultation stakeholders view the Inspire Charter and Plan as catalysts for building a new, deeper relationship with IPA. Unfortunately, my outreach also uncovered entities in the publishing value chain which publishers need do a better job engaging.

Digital Disruption Looks Here to Stay

Accelerated digitization has received a lot of attention as executives contemplate global publishing’s new normal, and these trends are likely to significantly transform literary events and business models. The dependence of literacy events on face-to-face programs appears to be a thing of the past with most book fairs viewing the need to continue hybrid and digital programs to maximize participation — even after the pandemic subsides.

There are also initial signs that pandemic-fueled digitization will disrupt the traditional publishing business model by accelerating things like the adoption of print on demand and curation as a service via paper, digital, audio, and film. Digital piracy, which was highlighted in the IPA’s 2020 report, has become even more pronounced of a problem and is pushing publishing ecosystem stakeholders to look at more innovative solutions like blockchain-based digital rights management.

Solidarity Means More Than Just Cooperation on Digital Opportunities

My conversations with stakeholders on the Inspire Charter revealed an industry calling for solidarity to go much deeper than responding to digitization trends. The pandemic is being viewed by the publishing ecosystem as a catalyst to increase cooperation on industry issues like empowering underrepresented voices, cooperating on diversity and inclusion, and revisiting fair dealing between publishing value chain participants — such as resetting the relationship between publishers and illustrators.

A very stark theme emerging in my conversations is also how different the recovery paths and outlooks are for publishers globally. While publishing markets in some countries, mostly-developed publishing markets with diversified revenue streams from strong digital infrastructure, have nearly recovered to pre-pandemic sales levels, other publishing markets face existential challenges. For example, 85% of Egyptian publishers have gone out of business I am told, and, in Mexico, 40% of publishers are unable to afford the costs of participating in the Guadalajara Book Fair. Our colleagues in these markets where recovery is uncertain need urgent support in asserting the value of publishing to policymakers to solicit more assistance.

It is very clear that another consequence of the global pandemic on publishing is the amplification of longstanding inequities — the negative impact of the pandemic on biblio-diversity, indigenous language publishing, and students who lack access to reliable internet look likely to be particularly pronounced. There will clearly be a dual track publishing recovery which produces haves and have nots without increased solidarity.

For many publishing ecosystem players, the global pandemic has also meant a move towards stakeholder capitalism. In a world of accelerating environmental, social, and governance change, ecosystem players have become more engaged in how our industry can address critical societal challenges and also be more of supportive of global peers. For example, the Spanish Association of Publishers Guilds is currently leading a consultation on how circular economy strategies can be applied to publishing, and the European and International Booksellers Federation sees the pandemic as a catalyst for engaging colleagues in Africa to support recovery in countries where the publishing industry has been particularly hard hit.

In developing workforces adaptable to these new challenges, the importance of industry up-skilling initiatives, like the IPA Academy, was raised several times in my conversations. There is strong demand for a centralized, global training resource to support publishing ecosystem stakeholders in building emerging workforce skills required by the new normal.

Interested in Contributing to the Inspire Plan?

With an ongoing lack of insights and data on how the pandemic will affect global publishing, the Inspire consultation is a continuation of IPA’s efforts to gain consensus on the key challenges facing publishing, develop workable solutions, and identify potential partnerships and funding sources to take action. To continue the spirit of cooperation the industry has forged in crisis, I wanted to share my thoughts from the initial stages of the Inspire consultation in a show of solidarity so that we can all learn and move forward together in these unprecedented times.

As the darkest moments in the pandemic have shown, the publishing industry’s post-pandemic future looks likely to be even more dependent on cooperation, unity, and solidarity. If your organization would like to discuss supporting the Inspire Charter or participating in the Inspire Plan consultations, please feel free to reach out to me.

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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.