COVID-19 has given rise to a new, terrifying vocabulary from epidemiology and infection prevention: Social distancing. Flattening the curve. Super-spreader. We have suddenly become well acquainted with medical equipment: ventilators; PPEs; N-95 respirators. We are learning quite a lot these days about subjects few but the professionals ever gave much thought.

For those under quarantine, many with children out of school, the Internet is a lifeline, providing information, instruction, and welcome distraction. We are recognizing, in new ways, how much of daily life that authors and publishers make possible and how much they make life under lockdown bearable.

In a special report for Beyond the Book, I visit virtually with journalists, publishers and industry analysts in France, Italy, Spain and Mexico.

To date, Italy is the European country hit hardest by COVID-19, with the number of deaths recently climbing over 10,000. Piero Attanasio of the Italian Publishers Association describes an industry in severe contraction with impact across the supply chain.

“The expectation is a reduction of 25% of the number of titles. That means in Italy, since we publish around 80,000 books per year, it’s 20,000 books less and 40 million copies, more or less, which means that this has an effect that will be in the printing industries, in the paper industry, but also, of course, with the authors’ revenues and translators, Attanasio says.

“We estimate that we will probably translate 2,500 books less than last year, so there is a problem of revenues for all the employees around; the professionals along the value chain from the beginning to the end, including, of course, the bookshops.

From France, which began a national lockdown on March 17 that was recently extended to April 15, journalist Olivia Snaije relates the cultural dilemma of closing bookstores.

“There was a big discussion last week on whether or not bookshops were considered essential industries. And most agreed that they were. However, the Union of Booksellers put out a statement that the health measures weren’t secure enough to reopen their bookshops, even if the economic upset for them was great,” Snaije explains.

“There are 3,300 independent bookshops, which is so much more than in most countries. But this isn’t to say that they aren’t struggling as well and most of the big publishers have agreed to reschedule payments for bookshops and reimburse them immediately for returns.

In Madrid, analyst Javier Celaya advises publishers to heed the real lesson to be found in the dramatic shift to the virtual.

“I think this is a time to reflect,” Celaya declares. “We, in the sector, for the last decade, have not really understood the power of digital. And I think now is the time to really reflect that the importance is not the format. The importance is the content. And if we want to have people continue reading, we have to really invest in this digital transformation in order to guarantee that the publishing sector has a future.”

And in Mexico City, International Publishers Association president Hugo Setzer hopes the crisis may strengthen the industry.

“We are seeing the importance of the publishing industry, how the publishing industry has been important to society since a long time, how publishers are responding with solidarity, with innovation, to the public,” Setzer says.

In the novel The Plague by Nobel laureate Albert Camus, the gates of the Algerian city of Oran are shut during an epidemic, entrapping the citizens. Characters plot to escape or struggle to cope and assist others. Published in 1947, Camus’s fiction has strong resemblance to ancient plagues and, of course, for our own pandemic. Physicians treat the sick without fear. And officials dither and dissemble.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel in 1957, Camus declared his dedication to writing as essential to his own existence:

It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.”

Over the weeks and months ahead, the response by authors and publishers to COVID-19 will capture our time and our humanity in all their complexity. The news accounts and scientific breakthroughs will call for a greater share of our attention.

We should be grateful, too, when there is something else to read.  According to Olivia Snaije, in Paris, volumes may arrive outside your door at any time.

“In certain apartment buildings here in Paris, neighbors are leaving books in a box downstairs, near the letterboxes, so that people can take books. They’re building their own mini-libraries,” Snaije says “There’s a lot of talk about what are you reading and how to get books – and for children too. I think people will appreciate more and more books.”

Recommended Reading

Copyright Clearance Center has launched numerous resources and thought leadership from a publishing perspective on COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus that causes it. We encourage to view our COVID-19 Resources Page as well as our Velocity of Content blog posts on the subject, including:

Author: Christopher Kenneally

Christopher Kenneally hosts CCC's Velocity of Content podcast series, which debuted in 2006 and is the longest continuously running podcast covering the publishing industry. As CCC's Senior Director, Marketing, he is responsible for organizing and hosting programs that address the business needs of all stakeholders in publishing and research. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Independent (London), WBUR-FM, NPR, and WGBH-TV.
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