With 200 participants from 28 countries, the virtual conference “ReBoot: Books, Business and Reading” had its premiere yesterday, Tuesday, October 13, 2020 in the run-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The aim of the conference with top-class contributions from publishers, book retailers and service providers, in a broad mix of international corporations and small local players, was an international exchange of experiences on book markets in times of pandemic.

The basic tone of the contributions was one of confidence but also of realism. There will be no “return” to market conditions in the book trade from times before the pandemic, but clear outlines for innovative and promising approaches of a new, hybrid publishing business emerged from the crisis in the past six months.

In the remarkable consonance between large and small players from such different markets as Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Great Britain, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, the USA or India, very similar basic experiences with new approaches were reported.

  • Approaches in which publishers and retailers are redefining end customer business via communities and digital marketing are pioneering;
  • There is significant growth in a wide range of digital offers, such as audio books in streaming, subscription models and – especially local – cooperation platforms;
  • In Covid-19 times, logistics became the predetermined breaking point, when supply and delivery chains were interrupted and now urgently need to be strategically rethought;
  • Thematically, the backlist came to the fore over – often postponed – new releases, which, however, also requires much more precise target group marketing and corresponding data analysis;
  • In the book trade, it is smaller units with less than 500 square meters of retail space in smaller cities that are best able to counter the crisis and the fears of customers.

There is no going back!”said John Ingram from the world’s largest book logistics company Ingram (US), summarizing the assessments.

“However, we are only halfway through the crisis,” warned digital expert David Worlock (UK). The “diversity on the market, between physical and digital offers” is the most important support for stabilization, summed up Jenny Bjuhr Berggren from the Swedish publishing houses Bonnier. Publishers are too attached to their internal perspective, said Nitasha Devasar, CEO India at the science publisher Taylor & Francis, but it is important to bring customers to the center of attention. Nathan Hull of Norwegian Beat Technology proposed concrete strategies and tools for such Business-2-consumer approaches. Michael Busch also followed suit, with reference to the “omnichannel” strategy of his Thalia bookstores, which sell books to customers in every form and through all sales channels.

With the new virtual teamwork, “worldwide collaboration in working groups will become a matter of course,” reported Carmen Ospina, who coordinates business development in the Spanish and Latin American publishers of Penguin Random House. For those who understand how to use these innovations, there is therefore great development potential, Knut Nicholas Krause from the software service provider KNK and Jens Klingelhöfer from the digital aggregator Bookwire were optimistic.

Recordings of the ReBoot virtual conference, four preparatory workshops and detailed documentation will also be available online at www.rebootbooks.org from the middle of next week (October 20).

The event “ReBoot: Books, Business and Reading” is an initiative by Rüdiger Wischenbart Content and Consulting (Austria), Carlo Carrenho (Sweden and Brazil) and Klaus-Peter Stegen (Germany.

ReBoot is supported as sponsors by KNK, Bookwire and Beat Technology.

Further ReBoot activities are in preparation.

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Summary from reBoot workshops Suppliers and Bookselling

Navigating through pandemic publishing land often requires confronting tricky conflicts of interest, as we learned throughout the four workshops in the ReBoot Preparations Tracks.

When the lockdown started in Poland, for instance, the leading book chain Empik started to give away learning materials for free. “We opposed that”, said Sonia Draga, founder of the eponymous trade publisher Grupa Wydawnicza Sonia Draga, and the new president of the Polish Chamber of Books. But in the end, she added, we could indeed win over new customers whom we had not reached before.

Reaching new customers for books through digital – in online sales, digital communities and marketing campaigns – and the resulting push for digital innovation turned out to be a strategic key topic across most workshop debates, with similar conclusions from New York to Athens, from Warsaw to Rio de Janeiro, and from big retail chains like Germany’s Thalia to small independent publishers and booksellers all around.

Understanding the dynamics that result from the turmoil in markets over the past half year clearly requires to analyze often contradictory details, explained Paulo Oliveira of Portugal’s “Bertrand” book chain (the world’s oldest bookstore, founded in 1732):

Portugal saw a 70-day long lockdown, and a breakdown of tourism, which led to bookshops loosing between 80 and 90% of sales. Even after reopening, due to distancing requirements, volume sales were still down -25.5% in volume and -28.3% in revenue. But significant additional turnover from ecommerce, and cutting expenses during the lockdown, resulted in an EBITDA “which was very good”, Oliveira concluded.

Germany’s Thalia chain had put a strategic focus on introducing an “omni-channel” approach well before the Covid-19 crisis had begun, recalled Birgit Hagmann, the company’s head of digital. Within days, teams put all their efforts behind online, creating a new landing page at once, re-focusing on new thematic categories like children’s books and ‘be at home’ books, from cooking to entertainment. And most notably, Thalia created a Buy Local portal that was open for any other bookseller, to join the marketing platform as a partner. In the end, 4,000 stores of all kinds had connected, even direct competitors.

“We could offer good customer service”, Hagmann explained, “and when you can offer first class customer service, all the way to delivery – from bicycle riders to click & collect – your customers will reward this with their loyalty.”

New customer preferences included a sudden shift from new titles to backlist, commented Brian O’Leary (Book Industry Study Group, BISG, New York), pointing to a statement from Markus Dohle, CEO of Penuin Random House, who revealed that 8 of his house’s 10 top bestselling titles in 2020 were backlist! Unsurprisingly, a majority in the ReBoot workshop confirmed similar patterns from their markets.

A common baseline was echoed with more practical details and case studies by Nitasha Devasar (head of Taylor & Francis, India), Fernando Pascual (from the indie bookshop “El Sótano”, Mexico), Hernán Rosso (Big Sur Distributor in Argentina and Chile) or Mauro Tosca (Messagerie and Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol, Italy) and many others.

The new ‘best practices’ generated an unexpected virtuous circle, starting at first with improvisation, which leads to learning and to innovation. Its steps include collaboration > omni-channel > gaining entirely new customers by giving away some content > adding new businesses after the lockdown > understanding the drivers of change by analyzing closely experiences and data > develop novel approaches that often result in new collaborations and new hybrid strategies like omni-channel and related combinations of physical and digital business practices.

Managing such a virtuous circle however, and bringing it to fruition, is all but a given. It requires

  • State of the art technical tools and processes, to generate and maintain a workflow that can handle such complex processes;
  • Smart teams who are prepared to try out (and learn) new business practices; and
  • A vision that understands to seamlessly combine physical and digital, omni-channel, direct-to consumer and user communities.

“Technology needs to be resilient and adaptable”, was a key recommendation from KNK’s Jason Spanos (KNK is a sponsor of ReBoot). The phrase willfully echoed a compliment given by book people often to their professional community, to highlight how strongly they resisted the drama of the past half year.

Resilient technology means that it must easily adjust to new requirements, new challenges, new everyday practices. How would you otherwise change your ecommerce overnight, transform your portfolio of products, and allow at once new forms of fulfillment! “At KNK, we started with ERP”, Spanos added, “but in the meantime, many other things have come up in the customers’ journey, pushing borders.” He reminded us that 20 years ago, when digital started to come into play, it was seen as a “cost factor”, while today it has “become part of a company’s culture”.

The point was shared by Nathan Hull of the Norwegian Beat Technology start-up, which – in the words of Hull allows the publisher to finally engage efficiently in a D2C (direct-to-consumer) strategy and own the customer relationship”, regardless if a book is digital or physical, sold one unit at a time or via subscription services. (Beat.no is a sponsor of ReBoot).

In his White Paper for ReBoot, Hull argues: “Part of this control comes in the form of access to usage data, the gold dust formed from the platforms’ users’ usage habits. Currently, and for the most part, retailers only report two main factors back to publisher: units sold and revenue. Yet, they’re sat on and exploiting a goldmine of information for themselves, all farmed from the sales of publishers’ titles. For subscription services this goldmine is even deeper.“

In two subsequent case studies, the value of automated processes and a platform and professional community approach have been exemplified in much detail.

Hans-Joachim Jauch, founder of Calvendo, a publisher of personalized picture books and calendars, explained how he is handling 400,000 individual products from order by a customer to curation of the submitted content to production and distribution with a staff of just six employees an.

Jon Malinovski, founder of the rights trading platform PubMatch, shared observations how canceled international book fairs resulted in a surge of buyers of rights in his online community – who in the past would have relied on face-to-face meetings in a physical rights center. “Bologna was the first book fair to come”, Malinovski recalled, “and we had just 3 weeks to set up 500 publishers and agents and upload 20,000 titles.

At this point, midway between lockdowns in spring and growing nervousness about the unclear outlook for the forthcoming end-of-the-year sales, many in the international book industry are reasonably concerned. What can a responsible management do to prepare?

Restructure your business”, was the stringent advice of Peter Jark, a lawyer with BBL-Law, specializing in insolvencies, adding drily “and not your debt.” Jark is convinced that first and foremost, the pandemic fallout put every single company into a “change situation”, which will require “to spend money on operational restructuring”, and that change will define its new self.

The complete recordings of the ReBoot workshops, together with additional documentation will be made available online to registered attendants of ReBoot: Books, Business and Reading through www.rebootbooks.org

 

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With 2 workshops (of 4) into the ReBoot Preparations Tracks, we can report already a load of interesting findings. Overall, it becomes clear on the one side how different the Covid-19 fallout is impacting various markets, segments, and companies, while on the other hand some strong lessons seem to come out across all the observed fields.

Topics of the ReBoot workshops and conference

Nielsen Book shared in the first workshop on consumer trends a wide panorama of how 1HY2020 went in territories so different as UK, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, India and South Africa. How reading, in the UK for instance, was up 7% after the first wave of lockdowns, yet reading overall was down -4%. In Spain meanwhile, reading went up, in particular among consumers between 20 and 35 (male and female).

Additional insights into developments in additional countries allowed to look into the US (down -4.2% y-o-y by now, with educational K-12 at a staggering -30.3%, but adult up +1.8%, and children &YA up 6.3%, AAP Statshots), or Germany (down -6.8% January to July 2020, with a small growth of 1,3% in July; MediaControl/Buchreport).

But across all markets, brick-and-mortar / stationary retail lags significantly behind the total market, due to increasing online sales everywhere. (James Daunt, head of the British Waterstones chain, reported in another conference recently that online sales in his company had been up 1200% (!) during lockdown, and were still up 400% in early summer.)

But not all is about statistics.

In Workshop #02, on “hybrid publishing”, publishers from markets and contexts as different as Argentina and Egypt, Russia, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Brazil or the US reported amazing case stories of Covid-19 initiated innovation at all levels.

The examples reached from the by now iconic independent booksellers cycling to their customers to deliver books, to a pickup of digitization along the entire value chain. Even smaller publishers rush to digital cataloguing systems to facilitate discoverability for their print books online, and set up ebooks and audiobooks (many for the first time) with digital distributors like Bookwire (a sponsor of ReBoot). Even new digital service companies highlight a thriving business in our conversations, sharing specifics with the attendees.

In Slovenia, two major educational publishers opened their digital learning platforms for free during the lockdown. At first, their servers collapsed, but soon could be backed up by idling IT capacities from closed physical shops, to the point that AFTER the lockdown had ended, and access was not free anymore, paid subscriptions went up by 30%.

This matched well with a baseline found across the board in workshop #01: Especially for independents – publishers and retailers alike -, the strongest buzzword spells #community related services.

Not an entirely new concept, of course, but one that got energized enormously during the past half year. New sales strategies emerge from the pandemic, which are community driven, tightly intertwining physical and digital, especially in local contexts.

Most importantly, many participants in the ReBoot workshops emphasized how critical under the given circumstances a direct relationship to reader communities has become for anyone in the book business. Building social media driven networks and all the tools for an ongoing interaction with consumers has become key in overcoming all the challenges from closed stores and various hurdles in bringing products to customers.

This is not just in Europe, it is everywhere”, we were told by Nathan Hull of Norwegian BEAT, a digital subscription and à la carte services provider for audiobooks and ebooks, and a sponsor of ReBoot.

Tomás Granados Salina of Grano del Sal, an independent publisher from Mexico, summed it all up: “The future seems to be good – for those who survive.

Recordings from the ReBoot workshops and a detailed written summary will be made available to registered attendants of ReBoot, together with access to forthcoming workshops #03 (“Bookselling” on Friday, Sept 25, 16.00 to 18.00 CET) and workshop #4 (“Suppliers”, with among other digital pioneering publishing software provider KNK, a sponsor of ReBoot, on Tuesday, Sept 29, again 16.00 to 18.00 CET).

And of course, attendants will also participate at the big ReBoot virtual Conference on Tuesday, October 13, 2020, from 13.00 to 19.00 CET).

All details at www.rebootbooks.org and updates on Twitter at @rebootbooks

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