Books in the Time of Corona
Changes in Slovenian Attitudes towards Reading and Bookselling
At the beginning of 2020, it seemed that the Slovenian publishing industry had finally started recovering after the 2012 economic crisis. And the recovery wasn't recorded only in terms of their promising programmes, full of up-to-date translations of top international booksellers and award-winning authors. For the first time in many years, publishing houses also recorded an increased interest in buying books, reported Zdravko Kafol, representative of Slovenian publishers at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Slovenia after the Slovene Book Fair in November 2019.
The new year also brought a reduced VAT rate for all printed press and books, including electronic ones. Until the end of 2019, they were taxed at 9.5% and 22%, respectively; now the tax is only 5%. With that decision, Slovenia follows some other European countries that have supported publishing, books and even reading culture. This measure was primarily aimed to help publishing houses and newspapers companies to reestablish and digitalise their businesses.
But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, and everything stopped mid-sentence.
As in most of the world, from spring, Covid-19 measures forced bookshops and libraries to close their doors. Literary festivals, book fairs and other literary events, among other cultural gatherings, were postponed indefinitely or cancelled. In an instant, people lost the opportunity to gather around books and talk about them. On the flip side, many had more time to read. In these anxious quarantine times, we have seen how books are necessary for maintaining our common sense and a calm mind, offering us consolation, reflection and possible solutions as we face the obstacles of living in isolation. With bookshops and libraries closed, the readers lost an important contact with "normalcy" in these times, so the lack of fresh reading material left people perplexed at first. Soon they turned to online bookshops and events to establish "the new normal".
The real consequences of the pandemic on publishing will only be visible after some time. Even now, we're already observing changes in readers' buying habits and a shift in publishing houses' attitudes towards those changes. The attitude towards not only reading and books but also their promotion and selling has started to change radically.
Bringing books home
Most book readers – whether buyers or collectors – first submerged into the piles of unread books from their home libraries. Those who relied on public libraries to supply them with fresh reading material needed to find new sources. They found them in e-books, audiobooks and other digital providers, which – if public library members –, they could borrow for free.
During the spring 2020 coronavirus epidemic, the number of e-book borrowings increased dramatically in Slovenia. As many as 25,000 users of Biblos.si borrowed 90,000 books from March to June, which is only slightly less than in the entire year in 2019 when they recorded around 98,000 book borrowings. Even in the days after the first quarantine, Biblos.si recorded four times more visits than before, said Mitja Čander, director of Beletrina, for Airbeletrina. Among the different groups of readers, we see an increase among the young, the elderly and the disabled, who recognised the many advantages of reading e-books, such as magnifying letters, additional screen illumination and easy access. All primary and secondary school libraries are expected to join the Biblos.si system soon, allowing students to borrow e-books from home.
From reading to listening
The pandemic also forced us to change our relationship towards audiobooks, especially because people have recognised the advantage of them being accessible anywhere and anytime using the Audibook mobile application and smartphones.
Previously, audiobook providers, such as Mladinska knjiga and Sanje publishing, hadn't had much success with them. In 2020, however, readers' interest increased with the recordings of two domestic bestsellers: the life story of Bronja Žakelj Belo se pere na devetdeset (Beletrina); and the crime novel Jezero by Tadej Golob (Goga publishing house). Both were produced at the Publishing and Record Label RTV Slovenija – ZKP RTV SLO. The epidemic has shown a large increase in the use of all types of digital content, especially an increase in audiobooks.
The mobile app Audibook, which allows us to view, borrow and listen, gained a large number of new users in 2020, and the interest keeps growing. They have also included the vast majority of public libraries (53 from 58) in the Audibook system. Thus, most public-library members in Slovenia can access their audiobooks for free, which will continue after the end of the epidemic.
Audibook currently offers around 400 audiobooks to 22,000 registered users (with over 38,000 borrowings). Although this number represents only a small per cent of the entire reading population in Slovenia, audiobook reading trends are surely optimistic. One such trend is Audibook's extraordinary increase in the borrowing of children's audio fairy tales. Surprisingly, the most borrowed audiobooks are not new releases, but classical stories such as Fran Milčinski's Butalci, Fran Levstik's Martin Krpan, the Grimms' Hanzel and Gretel.
This trend also tells us smartphones have become part of children's every day. Yet, their use as extended beyond playing games to other more structured, educational and useful activities, such as reading and listening to audiobooks. Among adult novels, the crime novels and life stories of renowned Slovenian authors, such as Avgust Demšar, Evald Flisar and Tadej Golob are most popular.
Additionally, a vast selection of more than 2,500 works on audio cassettes, and more than 5,600 works in digital mp3 format by Slovenian and foreign authors are also available in the Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired Minka Skaberne, which operates under the auspices of the Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired. Although most of the library materials in Braille and audio recordings are intended for people with reading disabilities, everyone with a library membership can also borrow their books. The quality of recordings varies greatly as producing audiobooks is still too expensive for most book publishers, especially because until the pandemic, we could not talk of a serious audiobook market in Slovenia.
Libraries' creative ways to reach readers
In Slovenia, there are 58 public libraries with more than 12 million units and more than 10 million annual visitors (in a country of 2 million!). They are one of the most important places for people to get their reading fix – for less than the cost of ten espressos a year. Libraries are also our physical and virtual spaces of learning, information gathering, community socialising, live social networking and democratic cooperation. A quarter of the total population of Slovenia has a public library membership, and more than half of the country's population uses library services in various ways.
With their doors closed, libraries had to find new ways to fulfil at least part of their mission to enable people to spend quality leisure time with and around a book. To connect with their users, they offered members online book reservations with contactless collection at the library doors or even home delivery by post. Some even activated local volunteers to deliver books on foot or by bicycle to the city's local communities. Instead of cancelling their events, libraries got creative in delivering them over their websites and social media streams. Children's storytime, cooking and yoga workshops, talks and lectures about literature, science, and health issues, even concerts, plays and quizzes were all transferred to the libraries' YouTube and Facebook channels, thus available to many more people than the capacity of the libraries' event halls.
With libraries closed, they could no longer offer free public events such as this literary evening with Slovenian author and Nobel nominee Boris Pahor (b. 1913) at the Beno Zupančič Library in Postojna. Moving events online gave them the option of increasing their audiences. Photo: Uroš Mlinar.
Besides free access to e-books and audiobooks, also grant free access to their other digital materials or databases: the local history portal Kamra.si, the portal and even an app about good books DobreKnjige.si on which Slovene librarians select and review great literature, mostly novels. Kranj City Library's online biographical lexicon Faces of Slovenian Landscapes and the National and University Library's Dlib.si - Digital Library of Slovenia allow members even wider access to reading material not easily accessible on the market.
During the pandemic, we also saw an increase in buying physical and e-books from internet bookshops. This is partly attributable to the fact that, after the first wave, people did not return to libraries in such numbers as was typical of the pre-crisis period. They instead began to buy more books online. Before the pandemic, they had more patience for months-long waiting lists to borrow the latest bestsellers from libraries. Reading was only one of the many activities in their day, so they could postpone the immediate desire to read them. With more time to read, people needed access to more titles. We also owe the rise of e-book sales to their immediate accessibility – and, let's face it, safety – after purchasing. Discounts and special offers on many books during the crisis also helped increase sales.
Mladinska knjiga (and probably other publishing houses) noticed significant growth in the time bookstores were closed in the segment of children's and youth books, mostly from the Harry Potter series. Although online book sales have increased during the epidemic, it has not reached a level that could replace bookstore sales. Yet, the situation renewed in readers not only an interest in Slovenian authors, particularly Bronja Žakelj, Tadej Golob, Neža Maurer, Mate Dolenc. The interest peaked in older titles and "forgotten" international books, especially catastrophic escapist works, such as Camus's Plague, Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, Dan Brown's Inferno, and similar titles. Slovenian readers were searching for answers to how this catastrophe might develop and end.
Most kids know that a trip to Ljubljana Puppet Theatre also means a chance to browse the children's picture books at the children's bookshop "Pod gradom" run by Kres Publishing House. The Covid-19 pandemic affects not only how children will be exposed to new books but also the entire production of such titles. Photo: Alenka Štrukelj.
Publishers go online
In the days before the coronavirus, most books in Slovenia were distributed to readers through bookstores and public libraries. With these doors unpredictably closed and their activities severely condensed, publishing houses were left without important sales channels. Thus, they had to find new ways of attracting people and convincing them to buy a book and recover at least some yearly turnover. Additionally, the suspended Single Book Price Act (Zakon o enotni ceni knjige) put bookstores in an unequal market battle with large shopping malls. Publishers needed to become twice as resourceful to get the attention of the public.
Thus, some, like V.B.Z. Ljubljana, published e-books for the first time, others published more and more e-books together with printed ones. Most offer free postage or other discounts, others design book packages for different reader types at affordable prices. As postal services became overloaded with parcels due to the greater volume of online shopping for all consumer goods, publishers also found other means of delivery. Some offer in-person pick-up of purchased books from in front of their stores. Beletrina even partnered with Wolt food-delivery service to deliver books to your door in Ljubljana within 30 minutes of purchase.
Forced to close their doors to the public during the lockdown, bookstores found new ways to serve books to their customers. Beletrina and others opted for home book delivery via services like Wolt. Photo: Alenka Štrukelj.
Online sales success can be partly attributed to the greater investment not only in digital advertising and marketing but also in creating tighter relationships with potential customers over social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube (Malinc, Miš, Beletrina, Družina and others). They publish recommended book lists, interviews and live readings with authors, prepare various games to encourage readers to participate and help spread the enthusiasm for reading, establish online reading clubs, etc. Publishers have also eagerly partnered with book-bloggers and influencers to access publics that have not previously been into books.
Already at the 2019 Slovene Book Fair, there were discussions with bloggers about their role in encouraging reading culture. Since 2020, publishers have even more actively sought collaborations with them. Photo: Alenka Štrukelj.
When bookstores do reopen, we can assume that new safety, health and hygiene measures will be in place for a long time. All public spaces in which books will be available for purchase will face a different reality for reattracting customers. Publishing – and in particular, the book trade – will be put to the greatest test. Their position will be an indicator for the further production of books in our country. Another fundamental aspect is the changes that will be felt in the reduced number of permanent external collaborators of the publishing houses, from authors, illustrators, translators, proofreaders, printers, and others, as well as the reduced number of employees in publishing houses and bookstores.
Perhaps now, more than ever, buying a book can be seen as not only for leisure and entertainment but as an act of supporting our local economy, culture and language. Although publishers, and all those involved in a book's creation, are resourceful, stubborn and resilient when it comes to their survival, they will still need the help of the community, industry and politics to continue their mission. If they approach us now by delivering a large portion of our soul food to the doors of our homes free (or nearly free) of charge, the only right thing, in the end, is to take care of and support them by buying books.
New reality: online events
Literary events and festivals serve an important role in bringing authors and books closer to readers. Organisers of such events were abruptly faced with new challenges when the lockdown prevented everything from travel for foreign guests to large group gatherings. Here, Bronja Žakelj speaks to Sašo Stare at Kranj City Library. Photo: Alenka Štrukelj.
Just like libraries, literary events, especially literary festivals, play an important role in the education and nurturing of reading audiences and informing the public about the latest book releases and their authors. Slovenia has quite a tradition of these events, which reflects its international approach and connections. A long time ago, these events had grown beyond mere public readings in which you could meet your favourite author. They have become a way of strengthening the wider awareness of the importance of literature and systematically cultivating reading culture and community. If the literary festivals' organisers wanted to keep that in mind when all the public spaces were closed during the pandemic, they needed to move online and to social media.
The now all-too-familiar Zoom interface has become the modus operandi for mediating all sorts of literature events from organisational and planning meetings to literary readings and interviews with authors. Here, members of the Reading Badge Association of Slovenia meet online. Photo: Alenka Štrukelj.
The move, which until recently seemed impossible, has now become the only one possible if the book industry wants to survive. Luckily, book presentations and talks about literature easily found their way to the screen, so fewer such events were cancelled. Even new ones occurred. Publishing houses quickly found ways to adapt. It was the public that needed more time to adjust to the new reality because people were accustomed to attending literary events in person. Many do not use digital devices daily, especially not for watching literary readings and talks, let alone buying books online.
The shift started in April 2020 with the first online book fair Fair from the Couch (Sejem s kavča), organised by the Slovenian Book Agency and the office of the Ljubljana – UNESCO City of Literature (one of the results of the World Book Capital Ljubljana 2010). Publishers presented themselves with their virtual stands, and visitors could buy books from their online bookstores. Since it was the first such online event at which most Slovenian publishers presented themselves together, it was very well attended. In three days, the fair attracted about 9,000 visitors, mainly because it aroused the interest of readers and book buyers soon after the bookstores closed and because it was a novelty.
Soon after, all traditionally-occurring book-related events moved online, such as Slovene Book Days, LUD Literatura's festival of reading culture Prepišna literatura, ZRC SAZU's Book Fair with social sciences and humanities books Books on Prescription (Knjige n@ recept), and others. The only exceptions were the summer events – the Fair in the Fresh Air (Sejem na zraku) and the Days of Poetry and Wine Festival.
In late November 2020, even the largest book-related event in the country – the Slovene Book Fair – couldn't avoid a purely digital format for the first time in 40 years of existence, with the motto: Apart – Yet Together. The year ended with Fair under the Christmas Trees (Sejem pod jelkami) on which more than 30 publishing houses participated, offering novelties and discounted books in the fair's online store. Many online events took place as part of it. The organisers of Mesto knjige in Nova Gorica also set up a sound installation, invited residents to a poetic walk around the city, and prepared a fairytale treasure hunt for children.
Only after the COVID-19 pandemic, we will see what remains of the publishing industry among the ruins. I believe that bookstores and libraries will, at first, remain a fundamental channel for obtaining books, if not for other reasons, just because of the pure pleasure of the experience of reading.
But to survive, all publishers will have to proceed with the digital transformation quickly and efficiently. This transformation means not only publishing e-books but also adopting a digital mindset at all levels of operation, from business to marketing processes. To do that, they would need to move away from the traditional organisational structures and adopt new business models which will enable them to become agile in the new digital world. The winners will probably be those that would be able to provide enough resources for their development.
The first step for getting there is making their services mobile and digital, with a focus on readers' online behaviour, that will enable them to predict better what readers within specific geographies and demographics read and buy. Maybe this means they'll narrow their book selections to those that will sell, which will certainly impoverish the variety of titles, but make them more flexible and successful financially.
New business models might also involve the end consumers in the funding and production processes, for instance, through crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. We might also see new models of accessing contents through subscriptions and VIP clubs, which will, for example, offer some of the book pages for free and the rest upon payment. Digitalisation will probably also change the power balance between the publishers and the authors. Since traditionally the publishing houses have controlled the authors and served as gatekeepers to the market as to provide quality literature to the people and protect the Slovenian language (which is still also highly supported by the politics), the digital technologies will enable authors to easier access the market and totally avoid publishing houses and their distribution paths.
From readers to publishers, librarians to distributors and everyone involved in-between, reading culture and the publishing industry may have been put to the test by the new coronavirus crisis, but their creativity has not been hindered. Sanje ('Dreams') Publishing House at the Slovene Book Fair in 2019. In 2020, the SBF went online for the first time in its history. Photo: Alenka Štrukelj.
New emerging authors and those who "do not fit" the publishers' programme schemes might be forced to self-publish their books electronically with the possibility of print on demand. This practice enables them to write directly to and for their readers. But that will require an immense change of perception of the author's role in the marketing process of the book which will be interesting to watch since the majority of Slovenian authors perceive the end of their work with the moment of when the book is sent to printing.
The future of the publishing industry – not only in Slovenia, but worldwide – will surely see some interesting rollercoaster times in the next few years. Still, the pandemic has shown us that Slovenian publishers are resourceful, stubborn and resilient when it comes to survival. However, their ability to carry out their mission depends on the support of the community, publishing industry and politics.
Nevertheless, most importantly, whatever the situation, book lovers will fortunately not stop reading – or listening – to books, whether they buy or borrow them in print or digital form.
Alenka Štrukelj is a PR expert and author of the literary blog Literarna lekarna. She is also a collaborator of the Slovenian Reading Badge Association in the project National Month of Shared Reading, contributor to AirBeletrina e-magazine. She loves contemporary art and dance as well as travelling and good coffee. Instead of artworks, she collects children's picture books.
- Source Maja Derčar: Založniki tiska in knjig naj bi v letu 2020 lažje zadihali, Radio Prvi, 2. 1. 2020, https://radioprvi.rtvslo.si/2020/01/zalozniki-tiska-in-knjig-naj-bi-v-letu-2020-lazje-zadihali/
- Samanta Coraci: Slovenske založbe v primežu pandemije, Airbeletrina, 1. 6. 2020, http://www.airbeletrina.si/clanek/slovenske-zalozbe-v-primezu-pandemije.
- M.K.: Prodaja knjig med karanteno: večja odprtost tudi za zahtevnejše branje, MMC RTV SLO, 7. 5. 2020, https://www.rtvslo.si/kultura/knjige/prodaja-knjig-med-karanteno-vecja-odprtost-tudi-za-zahtevnejse-branje/523028
- Samanta Coraci: Slovenske založbe v primežu pandemije, Airbeletrina, 1. 6. 2020, http://www.airbeletrina.si/clanek/slovenske-zalozbe-v-primezu-pandemije.