I’m sure we are all sick and tired of hearing how strange and unprecedented our current times are. This doesn’t change the fact that our current times are strange and unprecedented. The rapid spread of Covid-19 and the resulting lockdown meant that the publishing industry had to adapt to a new environment with no warning. Publishers have had to furlough staff and push back publication dates, bookshops have had to temporarily close and many events have been cancelled or moved online.
Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend The Bookseller Children’s Conference, which was able to move online this year. It was one of the most inspiring and uplifting experiences I’ve had since lockdown began. One thing that stuck with me was the sense of compassion and community that permeated the conference. At a time when people could not physically come together, people still managed to find creative ways to come together and help each other.
The line up at the conference included authors, illustrators, publishers and others involved in the industry. Many speakers discussed the ways in which they had set out to help children and families during lockdown period. Illustrator Rob Biddulph started an online art class with two new videos uploaded every week. Children’s author Katherine Rundell complied ‘The Book of Hope.’ This collection of images, prose and poetry was contributed to by over one hundred writers and illustrators. Many publishers provided free resources, including new and backlist titles, on their websites.
Two publishers featured at the conference, Nosy Crow and Usborne Books, spoke about their response to the lockdown. Joanna Olney, campaigns manager at Usborne Books, said that from the very beginning, they were asking themselves about what they could do to help people. The digital team at Usborne released many free home learning resources, including virtual days out. The company also dropped the prices on all their ebooks down to £0.99.
Similarly, Tom Bonnick, a senior commissioning editor at Nosy Crow, claimed that they were conscious of their responsibilities to their readers, authors and illustrators when formulating their response to the pandemic. Particularly the ways they could provide free resources without cannibalising author and illustrator income. Nosy Crow released a new digital picture book daily, and a new audiobook each week. This was along side a variety of nonfiction resources and a new title, ‘The Coronavirus Book for Children.” The digital version of this text was free to download and share, and the physical version was priced at £1.99 with £1 from each book going to the NHS Charities Together.
Both of these publishers claim that their actions were morally motivated and that they wanted their responses to emulate their values as a company. This does seem to be true. Despite an increase in sales and website traffic, profit was lost.There are potential commercial benefits, such as positive publicity and brand awareness, but at least at the conference, these seemed secondary to the desire to have a positive impact.
At the end of the day, publishing is a business and is motivated by financial and commercial incentives. But, it is still nice to know that the people making the decisions care. In the words of BookTrust’s Emily Drabble, “the community of children’s books is truly a beautiful place to be.”