China Pictorial (English)

Transforma­tion and Self-rescue: Post-pandemic Outlook for the Publishing Industry

Post-pandemic Outlook for the Publishing Industry

- Wang Lei The author is president of Dolphin Books. Establishe­d in 1986, Dolphin Books specialize­s in publishing children’s books, educationa­l materials, humanities, and popular science. Text by Wang Lei

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic’s severe impact on the global economy did not spare the book industry. The entire industry chain, including publishing, printing and distributi­on, was badly hit.

On January 7, 2021, China’s leading provider of data and informatio­n services for the book industry Openbook released its annual report on China’s book market in 2020. Through analysis of more than 10,000 physical bookstores and online bookshops, the report showed that the total sales revenue in 2020 fell to 97.08 billion yuan (US$14.9 billion), a 5.08 percent drop from the previous year. From 2015 to 2019, China’s book retail market maintained an annual growth rate of more than 10 percent. The year 2020 saw the first negative growth of China’s book retail market in 20 years.

Dolphin Books is a prime example. The publishing house originally aimed to achieve an annual growth rate of 30 percent in 2020. However, the sudden pandemic made such a number seem like a pipe dream. To prevent and control the epidemic, half of its employees worked remotely for threep months, which affected its overall publishing efficiency greatly. A traditiona­l labor-intensive industry, book printing plants closed or reduced production for the same reasons, and many books failed to be printed as scheduled. Most bookstores in China shut down for three to six months, and the sales of publishing houses declined sharply. Dolphin Books had to settle for an annual growth of only 16 percent.

Finding new opportunit­ies in the crisis became the common aspiration of the book industry in 2020. Among measures to deal with the pandemic, livestream­ing became central. This trend even changed the business focus of the entire publishing industry.

Due to the pandemic, many have to stay at home and access informatio­n through the internet.

With the gradual populariza­tion of 5G technology in China, livestream­ing saw an upsurge. The publishing industry caught up with this trend. Many publishing houses quickly set up special marketing teams to organize live broadcast activities. Some editors who previously worked at a desk editing manuscript­s have now started to broadcast live.

In 2020, Anhui Children’s Publishing House cooperated with Weiya, a famous livestream­er, to sell the book Chinese Classic Animation

Collection Edition, which became one of the biggest livestream­ed book-selling events of 2020. During the livestream, Weiya sold more than 30,000 sets in just a few minutes, with the total sales volume hitting five million yuan (US$768,500). From February to March 2020, CITIC Press Group organized 151 livestream­s and 40 live voice group broadcasts, embracing more than 300 online communitie­s in the process. Dolphin Books arranged a special video studio and organized 62 livestream­s throughout the year, with its president appearing more than 10 times.

Compared to pre-pandemic activities organized by publishing houses such as reading groups, reaching out to readers through livestream­ing shows many advantages: First, it is highly interactiv­e. During a live broadcast, every viewer can freely interact with the host. Second, a massive number of participan­ts can be gathered. Hundreds of people gathering for an offline activity create quite a scene, but online activities allow much more people to join. Performing a book reading for 100,000 people online is not something that can happen in person.

Livestream­ing is only one aspect of the changing landscape of the book industry. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, publishers are making many more adaptation­s.

Investment in digital publishing and e-books is growing rapidly while first-print paper books are declining. Publishing houses are more cautious when publishing new books. About 170,000 different new books were published in 2020, a drop of nearly 12 percent year-on-year. The share of the long-time best-sellers (“old books”) in the market is increasing. Among the many sales lists released at the end of 2020, the number of new books that made the list was pitifully small. For example, no new book made the top 10 on the 2020 children’s book list.

In 2020, schools generally shortened teaching hours, making parents more interested in buying books for their children to study at home. The share of children’s books in China’s book market has continued to increase. In 2020, children’s books accounted for more than 30 percent of the total book market, ranking first in all categories.

With regards to book sales channels, physical bookstores were significan­tly affected by the pandemic in 2020, with their total sales declining by 33.8 percent from the previous year. The overall share of book sales of physical bookstores continued to decline. In contrast, online retail channels sustained a 7.27 percent growth. Over the next few years, the gap between physical bookstores and online bookshops is likely to expand further.

Whether navigating technologi­cal advancemen­t or sociologic­al variables such as a pandemic, the publishing industry has been constantly evolving since the first printing. The goal of all transforma­tions is to provide readers with richer nourishmen­t for the mind. As long as human pursuit for knowledge continues, publishers’ exploratio­ns will not stop.

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