How the COVID crisis changed the face of publishing

It is hard to believe that a little more than 18 months ago COVID-19 was something most people had never heard of. The idea of a pandemic and of being locked down was almost completely foreign. And yet, just over a year since President Cyril Ramaphosa took South Africa into hard lockdown, it is now a part of our new reality and it has wreaked havoc in its wake.

Perhaps havoc is a strong choice of word but what is undeniable is that it has resulted in major changes. On a personal level, it has changed in how we live and how we act and from a business perspective in some cases, it has forced entire industries to pivot while others have been almost completely wiped out. So what does the post coronavirus publishing industry look like? Yes, Covid-19 has altered the landscape? Here is a quick overview of how.

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The end for some

One of the most notable publishing casualties of the pandemic period was magazines. Media24 culled titles like Men’s Health and Runners World, Associated Media closed as did Ndalo Media while Caxton brought an end to titles like Bona, Rooi Rose and People. But these closures were not purely the work of Covid – there were undoubtedly metaphorical co-morbidities in place already.

Circulation had been in decline for a while. Advertising revenue was not what it was either. Covid simply swooped in and finished off the job. Regardless it is fair to say that the post-COVID publishing industry has been through a big change, especially given that for many years magazines were a staple of the media industry.  

The rise of digital

Digital publishing has been rising slowly to prominence over the last decade. The arrival of Covid-19 played a huge role in rapidly accelerating its rise. As much as people like to read an actual newspaper or a book, the reality was that to get your hands on those items meant going out and purchasing an item that had been handled by a countless number of people in the sales chain. 

Digital dissemination meant never having to leave home. It meant easy access and, in many cases, it is also a much cheaper option than buying an actual hard copy item. According to research on WrittenWord Media, “Physical books became sidelined initially due to bookstores being closed, and shipping delays from online retailers. eBook sales surged as readers turned to convenient and immediate delivery. Kindle sales on Bargain Booksy grew by 18% in March alone.”      

The emergence of the self-publishing author

Another huge change that has been brought about by Covid has been the rise of the self-published author. Locked down at home with time on their hands, many people decided to use the opportunity to write their memoir or the novel that had been inside them for years. This trend that was the result of more time for people was amplified by the huge advances that have taken place in printing and publishing in recent years.

Unlike in the past, it is no longer necessary to have a deal with a publisher in order to get a book printed. Printers are now able to offer services like print on demand or book of one. This is a wonderful concept that means an author can send a manuscript to a publisher and print only as many books as they have sold. If they need to print a single copy it is as easy and cost-effective to do as a run of several thousand. The days of self-publishing authors having cupboards bursting with unsold copies of their books is now a thing of the past.  

Audiobooks for the win

This is a format that is booming. Prior to lockdown, a Deloitte study published by the BBC suggested the global market for audiobooks would grow by 25 per cent in 2020 to US$3.5 billion (£2.6 billion). That was before the pandemic struck with all its force and glory and the numbers turned out to be even better than anticipated. In some ways, it is hard to fathom why the growth was so good given that there was less commuting – a time where people traditionally listened to audiobooks. 

In an interview with The Guardian Duncan Honeyman, the Senior Commissioning Editor for Penguin Random House shared his thoughts on why this form of book was doing so well during lockdown. “Being read to is a really intimate and comforting thing,” he said. “It’s a human connection at a time when a lot of people are feeling isolated from one another.”

He adds, “You can buy and download a whole digital audiobook in an instant so you can start listening immediately, and you can multi-task so you can listen on your daily exercise, or while you’re cooking or doing the housework.”  

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In short, the world has been reshaped and it may never be the same game. The weak have been culled and there is suddenly scope for new growth and products to come to the fore. If Covid-19 has taught us one thing it is the need to pivot and adapt and the publishing industry is no different to any other – the change has been quick and it has been brutal. Those who have positioned themselves in the right place have flourished and will continue to do so. It is certainly not the end for the industry, rather an opportunity for new beginnings and a reimagining of traditional business models.

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