Amongst the speakers at the Bookseller Children’s Conference there was a sense of a collective deep breath. Authors and publishers took a moment to reflect on a unique few months of upheaval; and unpack what worked and what didn’t from their improvised strategies. New rules imposed in March caught the industry on the back foot – plans for school visits and standard in-person promotions were scrapped and programs for digital interaction had to be created. Each speaker described the same feeling of uncertainty – there was no road map for working under these complicated circumstances. Where were the opportunities?

Lockdown brought conversation to the fore about the problem of industry access. Access for authors – the writers and voices left out of the industry – and access for certain consumers, in particular education institutions who suffer from a lack of dialogue with publishers.

Teresa Cremin, a professor from the Open University, described the results of her research into the literary knowledge of primary teachers. Of the 1,200 teachers surveyed 302 could only name the titles of certain kids’ books not their author. This worrying discovery led to a digital solution. The university ran online seminars for 10 weeks. The ‘Books and Blether’ program introduced resources that were being overlooked by educators; the seminars were a trending topic on Twitter for 9 out of the 10 weeks. The industry adapted and facilitated engagement between teachers and authors, two groups that stood to greatly benefit from a close relationship.

Jelani Memory, A Kids Book About, 2020

The Bookseller panels also spoke on the other important issue that defined the year – the amplification of minority voices. Author Jelani Memory and illustrator Dapo Adeola expressed their frustration about industry access. Memory decided to exploit new strategies to directly market to his audience, instead of waiting for any industry conduit for his work. Memory co-founded ‘A Kids Book About’, bringing authors together in collaborative workshops to publish co-authored books. The website saw a bounce in consumer activity over lockdown; Jelani explained that there is a captive audience who welcome a new approach, not only in terms of more profound subject matter but the way authors deliver content to the readers. This new direct strategy was also adopted by illustrator Rob Biddulph. He changed the way he interacted with readers. Rob explained how his ‘Draw with Rob’ video series attracted many new followers to his Twitter profile. He judged that if he gave away his time and some content for free, he could grow his fanbase for future book releases. This thinking turned out to be correct and profitable – his book of the same name jumped up the pre-order list on online retail sites. This strategy, however, presents some problems. Publishers must support their writers if they push them to interact with consumers in this way, giving away content in order to create a buzz around the publisher’s product. Throughout this lockdown authors participated in online events for free. This isn’t sustainable for many.

Rob Biddulph, 2020

The conference was fascinating and insightful. The lockdown and resulting economic downturn will have a lasting effect on us. However, many publishers and authors rather than passively enduring the crisis have galvanized into action. Hopefully the change in thinking and new consumer relationships that have been formed will continue.