/ 21 April 2020

How a pandemic took the book industry online

From backpack to book shop: Griffin Shea's Bridge Books in downtown Johannesburg
The various components of the books value chain — spanning writers, publishers, printers, booksellers and distributors — are having to get by using the digital sphere.

For as long as the country is under lockdown and books are not considered essential, all physical book retailers, warehouses and distribution centres will remain closed. Book releases have been postponed and print runs have been put on hold. As it stands, five weeks of physical book sales will be lost: a loss that will affect the various cogs in the country’s literary machine. The Mail & Guardian spoke to a number of writers, publishers, booksellers and readers to see what Covid-19 looks like from inside the literary world.

There is no trade

In the four days before the lockdown began, Kate Rogan of Love Books says the shop experienced a surge in book sales as a result of stockpiling patrons. “Thank heavens, it has seen us through April,” Rogan says. Like other small businesses that did not foresee a pandemic, Love Books does not have insurance for such circumstances. 

You’ve got to Love Books
Love Books owner Kate Rogan (right) and manager Anna Joubert have, in 10 years, transformed the ‘sparse’ bookshop into one that is full of love, books and loyal readers. Is one of the many bookshops that has to adapt to survive the pandemic. (Delwyn Verasamy)

With physical outlets being closed, the next alternative for booksellers would be a contactless drop-off or pick-up system. “I am getting daily emails asking if we can deliver … so we’re working on our online sales ability,” says Rogan. However, courier services are barred from delivering goods that aren’t considered essential. BBC Culture says this is why French publishers have decided to delay release dates and postpone payment deadlines for the bookstores that they work with. 

This leaves bookstores no choice but to somehow make money online. Griffin Shea of downtown Johannesburg’s Bridge Books told the M&G that in addition to being sustained by the pre-lockdown sales, the bookstore has also encouraged its  customers to continue buying books with the promise that they will be delivered as soon as the lockdown ends. The bookstore is offering 50% off for its Learn isiZulu (over Whatsapp) series, as well as its Underground Booksellers tour which will take place once the lockdown ends. 

Griffin Shea in the City Central building that will house Bridge Books.
Griffin Shea says Bridge Books has encouraged it’s patrons to continue supporting the bookshop by offering them discounts.

Speaking from a small publisher’s point of view, founder of Modjaji Books Colleen Higgs says the publishing house has managed to stay afloat because its “60 days after sales” payment model has delayed the due date for its bills. However, Higgs says books that were released shortly before the lockdown are “in a kind of limbo. Even though the books managed to make it onto shelves before the lockdown, without book reviews and launches they received very little public attention. 

“I think everyone is so obsessed with Covid-19, that things that are unrelated are of minimal interest to anyone,” Higgs adds. As a result, Modjaji Books is uncertain about when or how to release forthcoming books and cannot continue to operate under lockdown for much longer. 

Writers can stay afloat

From the email and Whatsapp threads in which the M&G talked to writers, it seems as if authors are the most likely to survive the pandemic with the least injuries of all the components in the books value chain, because they are making money using their plan Bs to physical book sales. “Being an indie puts me in a unique position during these times,” says Melina Lewis, self-published author of After You Died, Libertalia: Lost Fortunes and Libertalia: Quest for Land. In addition to selling her work through book stores and other outlets, Lewis sells her ebooks through Amazon, Loot, Kobo and Payhip. 

Although nothing is stopping publishing houses from making digital texts available, such a decision needs to be informed by South Africa’s current ebook sales margin. Mark Hackney of marketing, sales and distribution company Blue Weaver mentions how business data platform Statista says digital books make up barely 10% of the country’s total book sales. Granted, the research wasn’t conducted under the unique circumstances of Covid-19, so the number may be higher currently. However, publishers then need to consider how many of their clientele have access to ebook platforms such as Kindle or smartphones that allow readers to read PDF copies of texts. Relying on local digital sales will not suffice.

Attesting to this, novelist Fred Khumalo says he has been adversely affected by the advent of Covid-19 even though all his books are available in digital formats. This is because sales are never linear, instead they fluctuate based on a number of variables. 

Masterful: Fred Khumalo’s new collection of short stories in 'Talk of the Town' explore African identity politics
Novelist Fred Khumalo says although his books are available in digital formats, Covid-19 has affected his other streams of income. (Madelene Cronjé/M&G)

To subsidise book sales or the lack thereof during the pandemic, novelists such as Lewis and Akwaeke Emezi, the author of Freshwater, Pet and The Death of Vivek, are using online content-subscription platforms like Patreon. On Patreon, practitioners can earn a monthly income by giving their subscribers exclusive content such as writing workshops and early access to book manuscripts. However for this to work for writers in a developing country, they are required to have a strong, preferably global, online presence. 

The rise of an African e-literary sphere

But not all is lost. In the time of physical distancing, strengthened digital book clubs, online writing courses and virtual literary festivals (on Zoom or Instagram Live) have emerged. 

One of the literary interventions from the continent is the online literary festival Afrolit Sans Frontières. Founded by author and publisher Zukiswa Wanner, the virtual festival aims to deepen the public’s knowledge of African literature by having authors from across the continent and the diaspora host online readings and public discussions. The first leg of the festival took place exclusively through social media streaming platforms Facebook Live and Instagram Live. A similar model is being used by virtual book club and literary podcaster The Cheeky Natives. They have invited authors and publishers including Dr Tlaleng, Thabiso Mahlape, Vangile Gantsho, and Sue Nyathi to read and talk with their listeners for an hour. 

Zukiswa Wanner (Brian Otieno)
After a successful first run, Zukiswa Wanner and Maaza Mengiste have organised the second season of the virtual literary festival. (Brian Otieno/ The New York Times)

Wanner tells the M&G that the festival had a successful run and 50 to 60 people attended each event, for each event, much like a conventional festival. Since the initial iteration, Maaza Mengiste and Wanner have decided to curate a second season of the festival. It will take place from April 20 to 27, under the theme, ‘What I Wish You Would Ask Me’, and features a new set of 16 writers from 14 countries.

In addition to creating connections, this e-literary sphere has also been a means of income for those who have lost out from the barring of physical gatherings. “Between the end of March and June I was to have earned some money conducting at least eight workshops and attending four literary festivals in and outside South Africa,” says Khumalo. Since the lockdown, Khumalo has  been offered other paid opportunities, including a live reading on the Gothenburg Book Festival’s Instagram account. “It’s important for writers and other creatives to embrace and explore other avenues in the execution of their projects,” says Khumalo. 

In the South African context — in which the pandemic has resulted in hunger and homelessness — books do not make it to the essential items leader board. Instead of mulling over not being considered an essential service or passively waiting for the pandemic to go away, this new normal is a call for literary practitioners to find digital ways to cash cheques and keep the public reading. It’s a very middle-class-focused intervention, but it offers something for people who are already fed and sheltered.