Coronavirus Worklife: Grada’s ‘Now or Never’ Digital Effort in Prague

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While lucky to have a digital subscription service, the Czech publisher Grada finds it’s unable to keep up with the loss of print sales—and that needed tech upgrades are ‘now or never.’

Can a publisher’s digital subscription service get it through the coronavirus shutdowns? Grada’s Bookport system has become its best hope. Image: Grada Publishing

Editor’s note: This week, as the world caseload of the coronavirus COVID-19 passed the 1 million mark, the Czech Republic reached its own grim 3,000-case milestone and is today (April 3) is approaching 4,000. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center counts 3,869 cases there and 46 deaths, placing it at No. 22 in the world.  The country has a population of 10,7, and as Jason Hovet reported Tuesday for Reuters, Prague’s responses to the emergency have been among the quickest in Europe, with aggressive testing, borders closed, a ban on more than two people getting together, and a face-mask requirement in public. —Porter Anderson


By Jaroslaw Adamowksi | @JaroslawAdamows

‘We’d Like To Think We Hit the Ground Running’
In becoming one of the first countries in central Eastern Europe to impose tough measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus contagion, the Czech Republic closed all schools and universities on March 11, and two days later instituted a state of emergency.

Martin Sviták, head of electronic resources at Grada Publishing, one of the country’s leading publishers, tells Publishing Perspectives that its Bookport subscription service has come swiftly to the fore, with the nation’s bookstores shuttered.

Sviták says Grada has published more than 9,000 titles and a total print run of some 20 million copies since 1991.

“Initially, our assortment of books revolved around professional literature,” he says, “but over the past five years, we’ve expanded to include fiction and children’s literature.

“A few years ago, when we started Bookport, our subscription-based platform, our clients—notably institutions such as universities, hospitals, and private companies or regular-end users—began using it to access a wide variety of ebooks, and not just from our list but from partnering publishing houses.”

Now, in a country under curfew, Grada’s staff and their colleagues in the industry have shifted to working remotely, and this is a case in which that change doesn’t come naturally.

Martin Sviták

“Normally, most of our 80 or so employees work from our office in Holešovice, in Prague,” Sviták says. “It’s a popular area, with nice cafés and pubs for business meetings with authors and potential partners, making the place particularly handy for our editors.

“Several of our employees work at our warehouse, packing shipments and receiving newly printed books from the printers, among other things.

“Since we rely on our own distribution, we also have eight salesmen whose task is to distribute new releases to their clients, the local booksellers. Other teams continuously work on our marketing and direct sales channels such as our grada.cz online bookstore and our Slovak language bookstore, grada.sk.

“Conference calls and home-officing are scarce for us” in normal times, “and this is how we’ve been doing it for almost 30 years.”

E-Commerce ‘Covers Not Even Half’

Despite the ready asset of Bookport, Sviták says his largest challenge is reassuring Grada’s employees, “while informing them that the economic impact will be severe and simultaneously trying to address the situation across our entire market.

“While we, the company, strive to keep everyone updated, we continue to face our own doubts about what’s to come.”Martin Sviták, Grada Publishing

“Our dramatic increase in e-commerce sales is not even close to covering half of the gap generated by the absence of regular bookstore sales.

“There are fewer meetings in person, so some of our people are understandably nervous about their specific financial situations. And while we, the company, strive to keep everyone updated, we continue to face our own doubts about what’s to come. We’re bracing ourselves for having to reach into our reserves.”

The spread of COVID-19 and the Czech governments mitigation measures have significantly changed the way Czech book industry functions in several ways, Sviták says.

“Because of the safety measures imposed, most of the stores, including all our bookstores, have been closed since March 14. This means that a huge chunk of our revenues has suddenly evaporated and people are worried about what’s to come.

“Although we can’t operate with any certainty, we’d like to think that we hit the ground running right after the state emergency was declared on March 14. On the 16th, we had a day full of urgent meetings, trying to wrap our heads around what exactly this new temporary reality means for us and what exactly we’d do about it. We put together a temporary strategy, dedicating almost all of our sales capacities to our online bookstores.”

Finding Deficiencies in the System

Grada’s Bookport is offering discounts and free shipping through its Bookport digital service. Image: Grada Publishing

To boost its online sales, the company has implemented a discount available during the closure of Czech bookstores, and offering free shipping. Grada has also intensified its online marketing efforts for Bookport and launched an initiative aimed at university students and academicians.

“In cooperation with other publishers, we’ve decided to provide free access to Bookport to all Czech universities and their students until the end of April,” Sviták says. “Now, two weeks later, about 220,000 out of the roughly 290,000 university students in the Czech Republic can enjoy free online access to educational and professional books to help them study as well as relax during these stressful times, reading available fiction titles.”

Meanwhile, the current situation and the technological shortcomings it exposed has encouraged Grada to upgrade the systems its staff use on a daily basis, spurring innovation and possibly contributing to improving the publisher’s operational capacities in the future.

“The circumstances certainly led to intense, but fruitful meetings,” Sviták says, “and a very energetic approach by our marketing team.

“On the other hand, we’ve also had to face some deficiencies in our tech, both in hardware and software, things we’re working to resolve.

“The whole situation has accelerated our tech upgrades over what we were doing in previous weeks and months. Both in short-term and long-term options, it’s become an opportunity and one we have to act on quickly.

“Some might say,” Martin Sviták says, “It’s ‘now or never.’”

Grada’s coronavirus offer to students and universities promises thousands of titles: ‘Read anywhere, anytime.’ Image: Grada Publishing

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More from Publishing Perspectives on the Czech market is here, and more on the coronavirus pandemic is here.

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About the Author

Jaroslaw Adamowski

Jaroslaw Adamowski is a freelance writer based in Warsaw, Poland. He has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the Jerusalem Post, and the Prague Post.

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