COVID-19 & confinement: opinion

The Day the Books Stopped

Paper and digital in a period of confinement

During this period of confinement, while waiting for bookstores and libraries to reopen, many of us are turning to e-books. Is this a lasting change in our reading habits or is it just temporary?

Interview with Tanguy Habrand, a specialist in the socio-economics of book circuits and the digital development of the book chain, who sees confinement as a testing period, both for readers and for publishers and booksellers.


How is the book market behaving during this period of confinement?

When we observe the behaviour of the book chain from one country to another, we notice that relatively similar strategies have been put in place. The trigger was the closure of the physical stores, bookshops, which occurred fairly early on, depending on the official measures put in place. In some cases, booksellers anticipated these measures, and this was the case in Belgium. Indeed, bookshops closed relatively early on, in order to participate in the collective effort and to respect the legitimate fears of their employees.

In Belgium the situation is relatively clear at the moment - despite the enthusiasm of some people who see books as an essential, vital product, which is of course a welcome opinion, the government has not included the bookshop sector among those of basic necessity. One of the problems is the polysemy of the term librairie in Belgium, as “librairies” selling literature are officially closed to the public, whereas “librairies” where newspapers, tobacco and scratch cards are sold, are open. Incidentally, some of the latter do sell books, but in limited numbers.


However, not all bookshops have closed completely. Although there seems to be a sort of consensus within the profession (brands such as Pax and Livre aux Trésors in Liège, Point-Virgule in Namur, Molière in Charleroi are commercially at a standstill), a few have maintained a delivery service (Tropismes in Brussels), or even an on-site collection service for orders (Filigranes, also in Brussels). The Club chain is also continuing its delivery service.

However, activity has slowed drastically, as the book chain is temporarily frozen. Indeed, distributors have also reduced their activities to the strict minimum. As a general rule, it is no longer possible for bookshops to obtain supplies. This means that bookshops have to essentially rely on their current stocks.

How are publishers reacting to the confinement measures? Will the previously announced releases take place?

Given that the vast majority of bookstores and distributors are at a standstill, publishers have been forced to review their strategies. Indeed, there is no point in publishing books in the current context, all the more so as some printing works are also closed (others remain open, but it is quite risky to pay for printing costs without a set publication date). Furthermore, the media are having great difficulty in talking about anything other than the evolution of COVID-19. Publishers are therefore no longer publishing and are readjusting their programmes, in consultation with their distributors. Now, at the beginning of April 2020, the most optimistic date for the delivery of books is the second half of May. However, some publishers are already announcing postponements until the beginning of 2021.

The worry is that the reopening of the bookstores will be marked by strong tensions. Despite the above, we can expect a massive influx of new products (the postponements of the confinement). In addition, they will have to find a way to manage the books published just before the confinement measures, so in February and March 2020, so that they still benefit from being new releases. The most desirable scenario for everyone would be for the biggest players in the publishing industry to show restraint and moderation, by playing the game of deferral over time. Unfortunately, we know that these players are used to playing the saturated supply card, and are themselves suffering heavy losses that they will have to make up for.

Digital books seem to be doing well. There are many possibilities to download them, and often for free or at a reduced price.

Due to the fact that the physical book industry is dormant at the moment, publishers in all the countries that I have observed have quite naturally switched to digital books. We know that digital books represent a small share of publishing turnover (less than 5% in France for general literature), but the current context has allowed us to take another look at this production and its historically limited potential.

Several strategies have been developed by publishers. First of all, there are those who offer discounts on their digital books. This is one of the avenues recommended by some distributors, because it avoids totally breaking up the market or portraying digital books as being less desirable. Then there are those, who have decided to offer free digital titles from their catalogue. It would be very difficult to mention them all, because the movement has been very widely followed, both in school/educational publishing (making resources available free of charge to children, their parents and schools) and general literature publishing in the broad sense (publishers such as Seuil, La Fabrique, Bragelonne, Les Moutons électriques, to name but a few).

In Belgium, the heritage collection Espace Nord has offered some twenty free digital works, all in the public domain. It is not yet possible to measure the impact of this availability in its entirety, but it is known that there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of downloads. In the case of Espace Nord, it is public domain titles that have been selected, in other words works that are no longer subject to copyright. When works are offered open access but are still under copyright, caution is required. If the publishers have contacted their authors and obtained special authorisation, all is well. Nevertheless, some shortcuts seem to have been taken in recent days, which then creates a damaging situation for authors and more generally for the respect of copyright.

But the readers benefit from it!

Readers, as you can imagine, are delighted. At least those who have the opportunity to read at the moment. Personally, I am quite frustrated with all the suggestions going around with regard to lists of books, films, and records that "must" be consumed during the confinement, when the measures themselves have meant that many of us are unable to free up any leisure time.

But let's take the case of readers who are indeed delighted. Are these books actually going to be read? It's hard to say. In my opinion, the current profusion of free cultural products does not necessarily lead to immediate consumption. Indeed, it seems that it also meets a need that could be compared to the shopping reflex in supermarkets, which has been the subject of much discussion in recent weeks. There is something reassuring, I think, in knowing that cultural products can be downloaded free of charge, because it also helps you to feel protected, surrounded, in a period that is very anxiety-provoking. And it also fits with a behaviour that is quite widespread outside the confines of the biggest readers: the compulsive buying of books that will end up in the pile of "books to read".

Readers therefore now have access to digital books of various kinds: e-books at full price, at reduced price, free, on loan (this is the famous "digital library loan", and libraries are doing an exceptional job in this field), or from illegal downloads. Indeed, digital book piracy should not be overlooked, even if it is less talked about than the piracy of films and TV series. Nowadays, a person who is ill-informed and comfortable with computers is able to find most of the big titles in French editorial production in less than five minutes. One can legitimately assume that this channel must be even more in demand than usual at the moment.

What do bookstores think about offers and discounts on e-books?

There is no consensus. Some booksellers welcome the fact that the book market remains dynamic and are themselves communicating the free access granted by some publishers on their social networks. Others, on the contrary, consider that this is reckless behaviour that destabilises the entire book chain.

In my opinion, it is important to bear in mind that the actions taken by publishers at the moment are limited in time and concern only a very small number of titles. There is a lot of talk about this, because it is quite unprecedented in the history of digital books, but the impact is much less than that of piracy.

Don’t a lot of booksellers also sell digital books?

Some booksellers do indeed sell digital books. However, there is a digital divide here, depending on the country and the type of players involved. There are booksellers who have their own online sales site, and for whom everything is fine. On the other hand, there are those who have had neither the time nor the money to set up their own sites. For the latter, there are sometimes shared solutions, which are more or less in close contact with the public authorities, grouping together booksellers around common sales portals. This is the case of Librel in Belgium, the sales platform for independent booksellers of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation.

Even though there has been a sudden increase in digital book sales (the trade journal Livres Hebdo reports a 75% to 200% increase in activity on various platforms in France), it is still a little too early to say that paid digital books have made their mark, or will do so in the coming months. It should also be remembered that even a tenfold increase in digital sales would fall far short of offsetting the losses recorded in the printed book industry. Today, the heart of the reflection of all the players in the book chain is not how to sell more digital books in the coming months, but how to get the printed book production and marketing machine up and running again. And that is the problem.

There is indeed strong competition for the online sale of printed books.

First of all, we know that Amazon has created even stronger competition than usual with booksellers. Paradoxically, many readers have seen this player as their ideal confinement partner, given that the company's management is known for its great inflexibility in the face of its workers' demands. However, the situation has changed since then: Amazon has refocused on so-called "priority" products, which do not include books. If you order a book from this site today, it will take, at best, about twenty days for delivery, which is rather good news for the traditional bookstore sector.

A common problem with these booksellers is their equipment, which means that many of them are not able to offer “distance” selling. This is particularly the case in Belgium, where they are currently trying to move Librel towards the sale of physical books, rather than just digital books. Other markets, on the contrary, such as the American market, are far ahead of us in this respect. In fact, they have already reached the next stage, as booksellers have the possibility of marketing books specially manufactured for their customers thanks to a print-on-demand system that is still only partially operational in France and Belgium.

This period of confinement has forced the entire book chain to question its practices. Will it represent a turning point for the book market?

In my opinion, this period will be a moment of test rather than a moment of truth. That is to say, a period during which we will be able to test a set of tools and practices in the book chain. It is clear that lessons can be learned. But I am not at all certain that the digital book will be the primary beneficiary. On the contrary, it seems to me that it is everything that has to do with the computerisation of exchanges around the printed book that will be most profoundly affected. Bookstores that have until now refused to sell online or deliver books will perhaps consider these options as an asset that should be taken into greater consideration and developed, without making it their core business, and, above all, without betraying themselves.

As for the rest, what many readers are currently looking forward to is obviously the reopening of bookstores. And readers, as well as public authorities, will certainly have a role to play at that time, because booksellers will need support more than ever.

Tanguy Habrand is a researcher at the Centre d’Etude du Livre contemporain (Centre for Contemporary Book Studies) at the University of Liège. His main research focuses on the social history of publishing, the socio-economics of book circuits and the digital development of the book chain. He is also responsible for the Espace Nord collection at Impressions Nouvelles.

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