Coronavirus: Spanish and Italian Book Industries Sound the Alarm

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

In Europe’s two most gravely threatened markets, publishers’ associations and their retail and distribution colleagues are fighting for governmental assistance – with bookstores shuttered in lockdowns.

A shot of Madrid’s Castellana Avenue at sunset on March 12. Image – iStockphoto: JJ Farquitectos

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Publishing ‘at Risk for Survival’
As the coronavirus COVID-19 emergency makes severe advances in the Italian and Spanish markets, the publishers’ associations and other book organizations are issuing more strident calls for help.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, these are among the world’s hardest hit markets and are leading the devastation in Europe at the moment. In both countries, various levels of lockdowns are in place. At points this week, pedestrians in Madrid have been stopped and ticketed by police if they weren’t out of the house on essential errands.

In both markets, retail activity, of course, is sharply curtailed. Bookstores, which don’t supply essential health-supportive products or services, are among those often required to close their doors.

The 10:08 a.m. ET (1408 GMT) update from  The New York Times‘ updating comprehensive figures and maps puts Spain at 13,716 cases today (March 18), with 598 deaths, and Italy stands at 31,506 cases and a staggering 2,503 deaths—with both nations’ totals expected to be updated shortly.

And both are, of course, wrenching cases in which fully deserving industries are pleading for assistance from governments that, by necessity, are focused on trying to save lives.

We’re reminded at times like this of a comment from a very fine theater company’s director who once said that he had great success in getting foundation funding for his season of shows until the representatives of the local children’s hospital walked in. “And how can I compete with that?”

You hear this in the tone of the messaging coming in from the Federation of Publishers’ Guilds of Spain (FGEE)  and the Association of Italian Publishers (AIE).

Spain: ‘Reading Should Still Be Present’

Spain has experienced an especially volatile upturn in coronavirus cases in recent days, Adam Payne reporting for Business Insider that Madrid has nationalized the country’s private hospitals, mobilizing the military to enforce a lockdown and declaring a state of emergency.

Within 24 hours, the COVID-19 death toll nearly doubled in Spain, the country’s health emergency center director Fernando Simón on Tuesday announcing a jump from 288 deaths to 491, according to Fox News’ Danielle Wallace.

And messaging from the publishers’ guilds’ federation is being focused on how the entire publishing supply chain is at risk.

“Booksellers, publishers, and distributors” the federation writes, “want to express their concern about the effects that this crisis may have on the sector.

“They consider that there is a real risk that many of the companies that make up the fabric of the sector cannot overcome the economic difficulties that this health crisis is creating.”

Small businesses, the group stresses, account for 70 percent of the sector, “and are at risk for survival.”

The publishers are calculating that as much as 30 percent of the industry’s revenue is at risk, totaling some €1 billion (US$1.1 billion)—a figure derived from a formula of four-fifths coming from the domestic market and the remainder from foreign markets. And they’re calling on the government to guarantee the solvency of the publishing sector’s businesses “to avoid irreparable damage to the landscape and cultural heritage” of Spain.

The publishers are asking for a program to stimulate purchases of books on the other side of the outbreak, including a package that sees the country’s autonomous communities making purchase for libraries through booksellers. They also want to see a voucher issued for book purchases, something used in Catalonia in the past.

And in the meantime, the publishers are reminding the government that “reading is an activity that can contribute to making the necessary confinement in homes” because of COVID-19 “more bearable. They refer to to their annual report, released last month and covered by Publishing Perspectives, in which results reflected the value of reading to citizens’ quality of life.

Booksellers, publishers, and distributors “want to point out that, despite the restrictions of movement, in addition to the reading of the books already in the home, there are other ways to access reading and power,” particularly through online retail. To this end, the organization points to the site—”All Your Books”—an aggregate site of books sold in Spain and Latin America, with a reported catalogue of more than 1.5 million books for sale.

The organization closes its appeal by pointing out that sites selling pirated copies of books will do the industry more damage “for the future” beyond “the health crisis we’re experiencing.”

Italy: ‘A Spirit of Sacrifice and Responsibility’

On the Via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome on March 16–one of the Italian capital’s busiest sites in typical times. Image – iStockphoto: Luana Rigolli

And from the AIE president Ricardo Franco Levi, media messaging calls on the Giuseppe Conte government for “immediate support measures for the entire book supply chain, so as to restart after the coronavirus emergency.”

Bookstores in Italy currently are ordered closed until March 25.

“We face the emergency, like everyone else,” Levi says, “with a spirit of sacrifice and responsibility. But it’s essential and urgent that the government and parliament do everything necessary to ensure that the world of books, with all its companies and its workers, can, like all Italians, manage and overcome this very difficult moment.

“You need everything” to reconstitute the country and its culture, he writes. “Nothing less. “

He makes his argument to Rome this way:

“Even before the lockdown decrees in Lombardy and then throughout Italy, we had reported a 25-percent drop in sales” with peak damages of 50-percent shortfalls. This total closure will have serious consequences for us publishers and risks compromising the network of physical bookstores, already in serious difficulty before the coronavirus emergency, let alone of the entire system.

“The damage that this crisis could have is not only economic: the cultural stability of the country is at stake. Tax deduction for book purchases, reconstitution of the original endowment of the 18App [the stipend given to Italians who turn 18 for cultural expenditures], a reinforcement of the fund intended for families in need for buying school texts for 20 years, estimated to cost €103 million (US$110.6 million).

“In addition to the other associations, AIE also asks for tools to face the liquidity crisis and social safety nets to avoid job losses.

“The closure of the bookstores is not the only serious damage that the sector is suffering. Today, we struggle with the cancellation and reprogramming of national and international book fairs and shows.

“We are risking a vicious cycle of falling consumption, which is followed by a decrease in bookings and print runs. This translates into a drop in reading. And we already are at emergency levels in terms of reading.”

In his conclusion, Levi warns, “The Italy that will emerge from the coronavirus crisis cannot afford to be without books and readers.”

More from Publishing Perspectives the coronavirus outbreak is here. More from us on the Italian market is here, and more on Spain is here.

Download your free copy of our Spring Magazine here

In our Spring 2020 Magazine, Publishing Perspectives has interviewed publishers, industry experts, entrepreneurs, and authors to present a look at the book business for the coming year. Inside this issue of Publishing Perspectives Magazine, you’ll find articles and resources including:

  • Publishing and the coronavirus
  • Richard Charkin’s view of key industry challenges
  • China’s growing comic book market
  • Brussels Book Fair debuts its rights center
  • Eksmo CEO Evgeny Kapyev on Russia’s book market
  • Matchmaking for publishers and producers in Latin America
  • Book market data
  • A world tour of copyright developments
  • Translation sales resulting from Norway’s Frankfurter Buchmesse guest of honor program
  • An AI startup creating interactive stories
  • An interview with author Andrew Keen

Download ‘Publishing in Times of Crisis’ free of charge here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.