Sant Jordi versus coronavirus. Rescue bookshops and save books

Persones caminant entre les parades de llibres el dia de Sant Jordi del 2018. © Vicente Zambrano

23 April 2020. Like every year, Sant Jordi [St. George] has to slay the dragon, but this year the story has taken a different path and the enemy has mutated into a virus that cannot be seen with the naked eye nor does it eat a princess, but it has devastated the social and cultural landscape with no way out. The hero may even have to team up with the dragon to defeat the virus and wait for the sector to withstand its onslaught in order to resume the annual struggle, perhaps in July, perhaps in October. Or perhaps the knight will be able to save books with visits to bookshops in droves and a rescue plan that helps sort out the weakest link in the publishing system.

Sant Jordi has been and gone with the bookshops closed. The book trade did what it could, but the before and after are marked by uncertainty. Bookshops are one of the businesses permitted to reopen as of phase 0 of the easing of the lockdown measures. However, on the first day activity could be resumed, only one in every two businesses decided to raise their shutters, according to figures from the Booksellers Guild. But we do not know how many bookshops will have to close permanently once the lockdown comes to an end. There have been urgent initiatives such as Llibreries Obertes [Open Bookshops], revived ones such as Libelista, online sales by big retailers (Amazon, as well as Fnac, Abacus, La Casa del Llibre and El Corte Inglés), online orders, orders via email or telephone from independent bookshops and sales in newsstands and supermarkets. Every day that went by before the date, initiatives and campaigns were rolled out, including some bones of contention and some uneasiness about how they were managed, but it can be said that while they served to dress the stab wound, the wound is still open. Now the idea is to celebrate the big day of the book on 23 July, at the height of summer, with a cloud of viral uncertainty that will impregnate everything and invitations to the continued postponement of the celebration. If it doesn’t prove possible, word has it that it shall be moved to October. For some, it will be too late.

The President of the Generalitat Government of Catalonia himself assured that an endeavour would be made to help bookshops resume their activity “as soon as possible”. “A highly affected, devastated cultural sector had to be prioritised”, he added. It was therefore agreed a committee be established to draw up a rescue plan at a meeting with the Minister for Culture, Mariàngela Vilallonga, and representatives of the sector: Xavi Ramiro (APIC [Professional Association of Illustrators of Catalonia]), Bel Olid (AELC [Association of Catalan-Language Writers]), Àngels Gregori (PEN Català [Catalan branch of the PEN International writers’ association]), Montse Ayats (Association of Catalan-Language Publishers), Maria Carme Ferrer (Booksellers Guild), Patrici Tixis (Catalan Chamber of Books and Publishers Guild), Martí Romaní (Distributors Guild) and Jesús del Hoyo (Professional Association of Graphic Designers of Catalonia).

Today, in the face of uncertainty, the sector is holding its breath. How will the lockdown progress? What will its consequences be? After the first few weeks of the easing of the lockdown restrictions, will people remember that culture in general and books in particular have helped them get through it, and will they flock to bookshops en masse? If, with a view to overcoming the pandemic, it has been us citizens who have been responsible by staying at home, will we also take responsibility for the recovery or will we expect governments and institutions to be the ones to fix everything? There are certainly no answers.

For the time being, this weak link in the chain makes the heart strong. Montserrat Úbeda, manager of the Ona bookshop, which was supposed to open in April to be filmed for Sant Jordi, explained that, “this lockdown will be good for us to reconsider the way we buy books and how we consume overall”. Lluís Morral, from the Laie bookshop, believes that at least this year “they have been saved”, partly because readers have directed their orders online like never before. Others, such as Isabel Sucunza, from the bookshop La Calders, tweeted that if they managed to overcome the suspension of “santjordi “ (relatively), it was because of that. A few years ago we decided that the stall for that day would always be set up in a place (the Antic Teatre) far from the madding crowd to keep in touch with our regular customers in a setting that would make it easier”.

This wonderful feast day has also exposed (to a greater extent) a weakness, and it is precisely the fact that so many book copies being sold in a single day is not something exceptional if it is repeated every year and if the sector’s turnover largely depends on it. In too many cases, the Day of the Book (and of the Rose) is not an accolade, but a lifeline that the industry holds every year. And this year there has been a full-blown shipwreck, in which there will be some who will reach dry land and try to recover, in better or worse conditions, but there will also be some who have sunk. So far, there have been some defaults on payment, and there will be more if no liquidity is found, not to mention that some companies have had to resort to temporary layoff proceedings.

Will the pace of online orders at independent bookshops be kept up, avoiding the temptation of the aseptic but punctual service of the Internet retail giants? Or will the digital book continue to rise, now that more and more readers have fully gotten into it?

In the chapter on solutions, the writer and editor of Apostroph Bernat Ruiz Domènech, an expert in the publishing sector and who last year published Desencadenats. Un nou mercat per al llibre independent [Unchained. A New Market for the Independent Book] (Saldonar, 2019), has put together on his blog ( a roadmap with a set of proposals that he believes would help to get the sector out of what he has called the black spring. A three-phase plan is put forward: rescue, reinforcement and reconversion.

Rescue with the purchasing of books

Firstly, a rescue must be made that is to include libraries’ mass purchasing from bookshops: “The main rescue measure must be fast and applied to the weakest link, bookshops, with three goals: that as few of them as possible be closed, that they resort to returns as little as possible and that they resume orders immediately”. Ruiz Domènech specifies that book purchasing must include all bookshops with “mechanisms for redistributing the effort; the purchasing volume of each bookshop must be established by comparing the turnover of the previous year with the current year. The bigger the decline, the bigger the purchase, but setting a higher turnover limit. In this phase, as many bookshops as possible must be saved, so balancing mechanisms need to be introduced that benefit small and medium-sized businesses. “Purchasing by libraries is the only quick and legal way to pump money into the chain, as soft loans and tax breaks, which should play a role in the reinforcement phase, will not arrive on time”, he emphasises.

As regards the budget for the measure, he believes that it should be split across various levels (the State, the Generalitat Government of Catalonia, Barcelona Provincial Council and municipalities), but it should be the municipalities that implement the measure, to ensure the distribution of resources. Barcelona City Council has already announced that it will allocate one million euros for the initiative. In addition, the monthly billing data must be publicly accessible: “To measure the effort that public funds should make we need to compare the turnover of the previous year, which is the most similar and closest we have to a normal year, with the months during which the bookshops are closed”. He insists that the figures be made public. “Not only must they be accessible to the authorities involved, they must also be open so that the whole sector is aware, as quickly as possible and in an up-to-date manner, of the evolution and scope of the crisis. The general public should also be able to check what criterion was applied in the investment of their money. Transparency is not a gift from those who have the information, citizens are entitled to it.”

At this point, bear in mind that authors, agencies, self-employed professionals, publishers and distributors have not been discussed. “The thing is that, if the necessary money is pumped into bookshops at the right time and into the link that needs it the most, it will flow throughout the chain: booksellers will resume orders much earlier and return fewer books to distributors, and this will exert a positive impact on the business of publishers who, when the time comes, will be able to pay and commission self-employed professionals with projects again, and will pay more rights to agencies and authors.”

Reinforcement with soft loans to bookshops, distributors and publishers

A reinforcement phase will then be necessary: “In the rescue we have used a defibrillator so that the patient doesn’t die – or is not left bedridden with irreparable damage. Once the sector is stabilised, we need to reinforce it so that activity picks up as soon as possible and public funds do not have to take over a mountain of unemployment benefits, among other social benefits. These measures should start in three months’ time and be implemented over six or eight months.!

Tiers of the industry are already demanding some of these measures, and it seems that the authorities are willing to grant them, and they are even doing so to some extent. Ruiz Domènech, however, is very specific: “Soft loans aimed at bookshops, distributors and publishers. As in the previous case, the maximum amount must also be limited to leave more for the weakest and those with less access to private credit. The usual soft loans from the Instituto de Crédito Oficial [State Finance Agency] and related institutions are not what they seem from the outside: the bureaucracy is the usual one, the timeframe can be too long and the level of guarantees is usually required by a bank, which is the entity managing the loan. In this context, we need the State to assume 100% of the risk to banks. The bureaucracy must be simplified by understanding that most will emerge from this crisis without having all the papers in order. Lastly, the grace period must be at least two years because we need a normal full cycle to consolidate the sector’s recovery.”

He also believes that a measure must be taken that many will not like: the cancellation of all book production subsidies during 2020. He explains that “although we will emerge from this crisis with a big increase in the deficit, money does not grow on trees and spending on issues that are not structural right now needs to be limited. An example is subsidies for the production of books and similar publications, which could be cancelled for the remainder of 2020, even those that have already been approved”. It is tough, but he assures that in Spain “books do not suffer from a production problem and we can discourage such production for a year. What’s more, grants are distributed in such an atomised way that we will not endanger any publishing houses, but the total amount is enough so that, used at the right time and place, the effect can be felt”.


Urgent reconversion of the sector

And finally, in the long run, a reconversion must be undertaken: “Once we have rescued and reinforced the sector so that it returns to something resembling normalcy, we must tackle reconversion. These measures must start being rolled out over the next twelve months, to be completed over two years”. A thorough reconversion like the one for books is not summed up in a few hundred words, but Ruiz Domènech points out the key aspects.

Firstly, reforming the institutional system of guilds and associations must be addressed; it should be simpler, more democratic and horizontal. Secondly, the obligation and free use and participation in information tools such as LibriRed and DILVE, among others, must be established. Thirdly, a book indicator system needs to be developed that publishes monthly data in different ranges and subsectors, following the German and Brazilian examples (among others). Finally, a plan must be drawn up for the industrial and commercial reconversion of books, with a series of measures that achieve the following goals: discourage the publication of new books and moderate the pace of publication; measure and reduce the number of live titles; encourage publishers’ adoption of technologies and processes in favour of efficiency; streamline distribution verging on zero stock through the application of on-demand printing technologies and processes already available on the market; encourage audience management by publishers and booksellers; and also promote the closure of bookshops with a smaller social and cultural contribution.

However, Ruiz Domènech is convinced that the sector will get through this, albeit very affected, “more than other large European markets such as Germany, France or Italy, because the profitability and liquidity of the Spanish market are much lower, even in comparison with the Italian one. In a year we will see quite a few bookshop closures, some publishing house closures, some medium-sized distributors might even have to lower their shutters. Besides that, recovery will be very slow. We can't wait to resume activity where we left off, the pace will be slow. If nothing else happens, we will spend autumn recovering and we might have a pretty good pace by Christmas but in any case, it will take us a year to regain lost ground. In addition, publishers are postponing releases and the purchasing of rights, so this will go slower too. Now we will see releases that were pending before the lockdown and we may have a certain sense of normalcy, but it will be by mere accumulation”.

Primera celebració de la ‘Nit de les llibreries’ l'octubre de 2018. © Ajuntament de Barcelona / Goroka First celebration of the "Nit de les Llibreries" [Bookshop Night] in October 2018. © Ajuntament de Barcelona / Goroka


The technological element

In any case, Ruiz Domènech rates the proposals being made by the sector itself as “voluntary, but short-lived. They’ve seen uneven success that will help some a lot but the majority very little. It is normal. Not all bookshops, for example, have entered this crisis with the same tools. Some have been able to activate their communities, and some haven’t because they’ve never worked hard on that. In a context of lockdown, the technological element has weighed heavily and it has been evident who had taken care of social media, communication, online sales, and who had not. This does not ensure viability but allows us to tackle the problem differently, with more options”. In addition, “not much can be said about the role of authorities because they hardly do anything useful. Compared to France, no entity, except for some municipalities, such as Barcelona, have put money on the table to buy books in bookshops earmarked for libraries, a wise decision because it strengthens the weakest link. I miss, at least, replicating what is done in France, tailored to us and to our resources”.

Looking to the future, “the distribution of paper books will have to diversify its range of services. Some distributors have already begun to do so, but most, for example, do not offer custom printing services. We also have to ask ourselves why my digital book distributor informs me, with a delay of just 48 hours, of the sales of my ebooks (and if I manage it directly with Amazon, I am informed the same day) and most paper book distributors do so at the end of each month and not on firm sales by readers, but just on bookseller orders. The traditional value chain hasn’t done the homework for ten years. There has been progress, but not enough”.

As regards bookshops, he believes that their role – which the newest and the ones that were able to reconvert are already doing – is to be cultural warehouses. “The main product will be books, but surrounded by cultural offerings without which the business will not be sustained. There will be fewer of them, and with the exception of chains and department stores, bookshops will be smaller. I don’t think radically new proposals will emerge during the lockdown. We will see the continuation of what we saw up to Sant Jordi, little else. It isn’t bad, but we shouldn’t fall into triumphalisms: even Llibreries Obertes, which now works well and has sold about 50,000 books, has yet to sell since 23 March the equivalent of two normal billing days before the crisis. Hopefully, 10% of what would be normal is being sold. It’s a catastrophe.”

A catastrophe that will force the doors to open, wait for liquidity to be pumped into the system and for readers (respecting social distancing measures, needless to say) to fill bookshops so that value flows to all the links in the chain of the publishing sector. Thus, perhaps St. George, the princess and the dragon, will defeat the lockdown virus and resume the fight not next year, not in July, not in October, but day after day.

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