Has COVID-19 hastened the demise of PRINT PUBLISHING and LIBRARIES?

Paul Corney

March 20, 2021




Written By
Paul Corney

Paul who is President of CILIP also has a career which spans 5 decades: in that time he has maintained a portfolio of acitivities working at senior and board level positions a range of industries and geographical locations in finance; 3rd sector; energy; government & public sector; information & knowledge management; law; leisure; retail; as well as technology

Paul muses:
"I grew up in an age where a tablet was something you took for a headache. Bookshelves were for storing books you’d read, not for making your virtual backdrop look good."
Getting a book published was a big deal and with a prospective print run of 25,000, publishers raised the barrier high. Over the last decade I’ve been published in numerous academic and commercial journals and magazines. And more recently, as the co-author of a couple of acclaimed books.

I’ve been able to publish my thoughts via my own website and as a contributor to others’. I’m not alone, more people than ever have become content generators. Today, the average print run for printed (hard copy) books is 2,500, a much lower barrier to being published.

The way we read and consume information is changing too. The average age of an e-book reader is 53. In comparison, a partner in one of my businesses is a millennial who has never read a book, yet has few peers on matters financial.

While part of the faculty of a university I used to spend time in their library and was frequently astonished by how infrequently it was accessed for book borrowing. Students had become used to ‘cutting and pasting’ from the results of Google searches. They, like much of society, have become adept at reading the headline not the article; of extracting paragraphs and phrases to support hypotheses.

Tablets have been with us for almost 15 years. For a while, it seemed that Amazon’s Kindle’s only competition would come from the Sony Reader and Barnes & Noble Nook. Then along came Apple’s iPad in April 2010. I remember being at an event where the iPad (tablet) was launched. It was a hybrid, part laptop, part phone. Like many of Apple’s products it created a demand from a market that was not evident, with converts demanding a superior experience as compared to the print version.

Global ownership of smartphones tops three billion; they have become the dominant medium for audio books accounting for 44 per cent of all sales.

The book publishing industry is worth $100bn; the digital publishing industry $27bn of which e-books $15bn; the audio book market is worth $2.67bn.

Today we have better access to more information and content but are we better informed?

Are we reading/listening to more?

Has the pandemic affected the way we consume information, after all, it has changed the way we work?

James, I'd be interested to know your view?

James Macfarlane CEO of Easypress Technologies
James Macfarlane - CEO Easypress Technologies

Thank you Paul, I believe we are at a pivotal moment in the evolution of Digital Publishing?

Despite the past being the worst year for everyone in living memory as the pandemic casts an exceedingly long sad shadow across the globe.

After a very worrying few months early in 2020, the print Book Publishing industry is having a renaissance period pretty much everywhere.

Sales are up... at least for now

Publishers Weekly in New York recently reported that 2020 trade book sales in the US were at their best in a decade.

Overall trade sales were up 8.2% with juvenile sales up by almost a remarkable 25%, whilst the rises in academic and education have seen a staggering rise of 55%, as hundreds of millions of children and their parents across the world are required to home-school.

The rise in print books has also seen a commensurate rise in digital book and audiobook sales to bring smiles to senior publishing management.

Publishers Weekly’s reported book sales numbers will, I am sure, be repeated in the UK, across Europe and in other book sales markets across the world.

In response, I have recently heard many in the publishing industry say, “long may it continue”! I am sure it will, whilst the effects of the global pandemic continue to be felt.

However, by 2022 life will hopefully start to return to its pre-Covid-19 levels. I predict that continued print Book Sales renaissance will then need to work extremely hard to maintain its current sales high.

"Publishing more with fewer resources"

Book publishers are driven by their shareholders to make profits and under constant pressure to raise revenues, whilst controlling and improving business margins.

That means improving productivity and reducing internal and external expenditure.

A standard response for reducing external expenditure has been to outsource and offshore non-essential services to lower cost regions to reduce labour charges. Reduced costs for printing, production, and logistics have been the standard business stance for the past decade.

Today, most publishers have already pulled that outsource lever. Why in that case, is there still the internal pressure is to “publish more with fewer resources”?

Digital Publishing offers the next level of evolution to improve productivity, increase output and not just lower costs. Book publishers need to adopt a smarter approach to improve productivity. It will only get worse!

Today, it is a given that more titles lead to lower print runs especially amongst lesser-known authors.

Entry-level print runs for book titles usually mean an average of 2,500 copies in the UK, or increasingly Print on Demand is the direction for smaller book publishers.

Market consolidation of publishers will continue in the coming period as the global publishing market consolidates, a good example being the recent acquisition of Simon & Schuster by the Bertelsmann Group, who own Penguin Random House2. With consolidation will come fresh competition and new entrants. Typically, younger teams are more open to improved and technology centric work-practices.

Many publishers have struggled with margin improvement, where most working practices within larger publishers have remained static, and have been for years, sometimes decades.

As one academic publisher recently reported to the Bookseller3,Covid-19 has forced them to change in their academic publishing space over the past year, more than in the previous decade.

What the impact of Covid-19 has done is given the global publishing industry a short breathing space to rethink the future to improve margins and maintain business growth.

So, how should the global publishers respond to grow their top line, whilst improving their bottom-line?

The rise of Digital Publishing

The publisher consensus is that Digital Publishing equates to the use of technology to deliver all publishing formats. That is print, eBook and increasingly audio.

I believe that digital publishing needs to go further to cover the delivery of publishing formats in any language, location and consumption preferences.

Multi-channel publishing is becoming the benchmark standard. Publishers should aspire to the author’s manuscript using a platform with flexible workflow, a managed repository and agile conversion, and ready to publish format in print, digital and audio.

Workflow... the core of the solution

Lower delivery costs can be achieved by reducing the touch points for a manuscript by editorial or production operators.

Digital publishing needs to adopt platforms which allow for the following editorial and production capabilities. Using flexible integrated workflow, the production process can be molded to fit any existing working pattern required by the publisher. The standard editorial and production work patterns can remain first galley-proof, remote proof-reading, remote copyediting, altering and addition front and back-matter continue just as they would in the current manual production processes.

It is important that your digital publishing platform can integrate into third-party platforms like Adobe’s recently acquired workflow platform supplier Workfront for managing publishing editorial and production scheduling.

To improve productivity in book production teams, publishers must ensure that the focus is on collaboration on individual titles, rather than following existing siloed work practices which still exist in many publishers today. Having the manuscript flow through the book production workflow, using collaboration on editing, reviewing and approval is essential to reduce time, lower costs and maintain the quality of the finished print product.

At the end of the day publishers demand and require a consistent, predictable, high quality final product which can be processed faster with fewer interventions and delivered at significantly lower costs.

That is the principle as Mike Levaggi the Global Procurement Director at HarperCollins highlights of “doing more, with fewer resources”.

“Proof of the pudding”

As an illustration, recently we at Easypress conducted a measured case study using the technology and principles of Digital Publishing by publishing a block of 50 fiction and non-fiction trade books for POD totaling 14,270 pages from an established Publisher.

The outcome, by using Digital Publishing technology and advanced publishing workflows we proved that publishers could mass produce large numbers of print and eBooks for a fraction of the cost and in a remarkably short production period. All delivered with high standards to reading quality which would not look out of place on any Library bookshelf.

Future publishing direction?

For publishers, it is no longer a choice of in-sourcing, or out-sourcing, it is about investing in a digital publishing strategy which allows their business to “right-source” for a more productive tomorrow.

Impact of digital publishing on libraries

For many in the Library sector the rise of Digital Publishing may seem like pouring ‘petrol on the fire!’

Allowing for increased diversity and volume of books in print, eBook or audio may seem at odds with Libraries maintaining and promoting the benefits of a trusted safe community space for accessing and reading knowledge for all ages and backgrounds. I sense from my research though that there is something missing from their portfolio.

While important Libraries focus resources on maintaining and keeping pace with the changes that increased digital reading and a greater volume of titles will demand, I believe there are opportunities to accentuate the role Libraries occupy in our communities.

Libraries offer a safe space with a trusted reputation built on an illustrious heritage. They also offer community venues for meeting and promoting the creative arts of authoring and storytelling.

Empowering storytellers

Some years ago, I had the privilege to listen to Margret Attwood and Jeffery Archer tell their author stories.

Neither described themselves as authors. They were storytellers first and authors second. Margret Atwood made the insightful observation that in her view the world was divided into those who told stories and those who read or listened to them.

Having acted as a publisher for several self-published authors myself, I know the hardest step along the path of storytelling is enabling the author to tell their story, giving them the exposure.

Libraries could possibly play a role in allowing and even promoting new and local works from authors. Pop-up author reading, signing and face-to-face meetthe-author would be a benefit to the author and allow the library community to experience the creative art of storytelling at first hand. This in turn could feed the commercial publishing world if controlled for the benefits of authors, Libraries and their communities. A couple of years ago I listened to performance poet Sophia Thakur, absolutely one of the best modern poets from London I have heard recently.

Creative artists, sometimes from the most deprived areas of major cities, would benefit on their journey by being welcomed by Libraries where they can perform their arts and tell their stories in the safe space offered by the community library.

Potentially another opportunity for libraries is to offer an alternative social media platform to sit alongside the many commercial reading recommendation websites such as Goodreads and Love Reading. Libraries are a trusted source where new books are read, reviewed and supported within the Library communities and moderated by the Libraries to ensure fairness and lack of bias.

Why shouldn’t Libraries offer a similar local, regional or national service? Libraries have a captive and supportive community why not offer a book reading, reviews and discourse.

"Digital Publishing will ensure that there are going to be many more storytellers and authors in our digital world in the coming decades. A joined-up publishing world of those who want to tell their stories and those who wish to read or listen to those stories.
I believe that libraries have the potential to play a pivotal role in that publishing world of the future, if they are prepared to seize the initiative, one that is free from the commercial pressures that global publishers and Amazon demand."

Paul Corney - President of CILIP

James has made a number of insightful suggestions on the future for Libraries.

One, that “Libraries could possibly play a role in allowing and even promoting new and local works from authors”

I am delighted to note, is already underway. I found this out during one of my “In conversation with…” calls a few weeks ago with Heena Karavadra, Academic Librarian at University of Leicester.

Heena described the ‘Represent’ campaign, which was launched to help diversify the leisure reading collection. She said:

“It’s important to us that our collections represent the incredible range of diverse voices of our students, staff and local population. We are keen to include more works by underrepresented voices in the Library and this year have been asking our users to recommend titles from underrepresented voices for us to purchase”.

This theme, getting the community (students and public) to tell us about a book, was repeated in the @CILIPSW#GrabABreak session led by Kay Ecclestone, which I was delighted to join last week as part of my “In conversation with..” series. Facilitating online events wherein people talk about books they have read is another great example of how the library community is bringing people together during the pandemic.

In his September 2020 Levelling up our communities report4 MP Danny Kruger noted: “The local Library is or should be a crucial element of the social model we need to create or re-create. Libraries are no longer dusty book depositories. Increasingly they serve as digital hubs and information centres for communities, and places for classes and sessions of all kinds. The British Library’s Business and IP Centre network is supporting local libraries to assist people in starting their own businesses. Even more is possible: siting BBC local radio stations in libraries, spreading the Library of Things network, using libraries for cultural events and exhibitions, and working with Historic England to establish new libraries in old buildings. The fact that the library is an historic institution, a repository of the memories of a local place and traditionally a window on knowledge and a doorway to opportunity for people from ordinary
backgrounds, fits it even more for its role at the heart of communities in the 21st century.”

And the report’s powerful call to action is one all of the CILIP membership and beyond is watching with keen interest to see if it’s taken up.

Government should make a major commitment to support the local library as the storytelling hub of the 21st century community.


1 Publishers Weekly, 1st February 2021, p. 4.
2 New York Times, Penguin Random House to Buy Simon & Schuster 25th November 2020 – Morning Briefing
3 Bookseller, ‘Challenges ahead’, as university presses adapt to Covid change – 29th June 2020 by June Comerford
4 ‘Leveling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant’; a report for government by Danny Kruger MP September 2020.


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