Jerusalem International Book Forum: Perspectives on the Pandemic

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Taking an upbeat cue from Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle, JIBF’s digital discussions examine the impact of the coronavirus on international book publishing.

Purple distancing guides are on the floor of the women’s side of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, seen here in a view from the stairs leading to the Maghreb Gate of the Temple Mount on March 23. Image – iStockphoto: Svarshik

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

Raising Spirits
While acknowledging that many markets and players in world publishing have not had as prosperous a ride as others, the second day of the Jerusalem International Book Forum’s series of four sessions in May was decidedly upbeat.

Following Monday’s (May 3) announcement that the English author Julian Barnes is the new recipient of the US$10,000 Jerusalem Prize—and is expected to give his acceptance address at the 2022 physical staging of the forum—today’s program (May 4) comprised an ebullient pep talk from Markus Dohle, the reliably affable worldwide CEO of Penguin Random House.

“Since 2017,” Dohle said to the online audience of some 125 Zoom accounts, “I’ve been on a global roadshow to try to change the public and internal view of the future of our industry for the better, and convey my fact-based optimism. Unsurprisingly, during the global pandemic in the last 15 months, many people have been asking me if I still think it’s the best time in publishing. My answer is yes.”

Dohle was with us onstage at the 2019 opening iteration of the newly reconstituted Jerusalem International Book Forum, and he mentioned today that he’s a fan of the program’s accompanying Zev Birger Editorial Fellowship program, which will open on September 12 a second round of applications for its expected 2022 outing. The Birger’s faithful supporter Esther Margolis must have been pleased to hear Dohle call the Birger “the most important sister- and brotherhood in book publishing.”

Markus Dohle: ‘The Best Is Yet to Come’

Penguin Random House’s Markus Dohle in his opening comments for the Jerusalem International Book Forum. Image: Publishing Perspectives

Before handing off to a panel discussion surveying the pandemic’s effects and implications for the industry, Dohle quickly outlined reasons for his optimism.

He said he sees the 15 months so far in the ongoing world pandemic as a kind of stress test in which the international book market has continued to grow, meaning that “the revenue of our industry is growing, every year consumers around the world are spending more money on books,” especially in markets “with a strong economic presence and a functioning, open supply chain,” as in the United States and United Kingdom.

“During the global pandemic in the last 15 months, many people have been asking me if I still think it’s the best time in publishing.”Markus Dohle, Penguin Random House

There’s stability to “the physical and digital distribution of our stories,’ he said, “because we actually have a functioning and profitable business model for digital distribution,” which provides “what I call a healthy coexistence between the physical and digital share of our books.”

Print books, Dohle said, “still account for roughly 80 percent of global sales. This was even true last year when people shifted to buy books more books online—the lion’s share of last year’s growth came from printed books” as literacy gains in many countries bring more consumers into the reading marketplace.

He credits the sheer geographic reach of e-commerce, the health of the world’s fast-growing textbook market, and “record growth rates in the children’s category as parents around the world search for new ways to entertain and educate kids at home.” This, he said, is leading to “new and larger generations of readers going forward,” even as audiobooks “are booming and are partially incremental,” he said—meaning that audio is not necessarily cannibalizing what might have been print or ebook sales. Audio is thus adding, he said, to the overall mass of reading in various formats.

He then passed the baton to the waiting panel with his signature wide smile: “The best is yet to come for our beloved book publishing business.”

Panel: Viewpoints on the Experience

Image: Publishing Perspectives

Some genteel leavening came quickly from Publishing Marketplace’s Michael Cader, who opened the day’s panel discussion saying that that while he “generally and philosophically agrees with where Markus is coming from,” the pandemic experience of the major trade houses, of course, is not something universally experienced.

“One of my regrets,” he said, is that “enthusiasm about the overall performance of trade publishers” can mean that the industry is “a little bit unwilling or uncomfortable about looking honestly at the people and sectors of the business who did suffer measurably during this past year. That begins with authors.”

The panel was moderated by Ziv Lewis, foreign rights and acquisitions manager of Israel’s Kinneret Zmora Publishing House. Lewis turned first to Cader to ask for some top-line observations. In addition to Cader, featured speakers were:

  • Madeline McIntosh, CEO, Penguin Random House USA
  • Gray Tan, founder and president of Grayhawk Agency, based in Taipei
  • Yaniv Iczkovits, author, Israel

Because these speakers all made considerably valuable and detailed observations, we’ll break up our coverage of their session. Today, we’ll look at commentary from the US representatives on the panel, Cader and McIntosh. We’ll then take up remarks made by Tan of Taiwan and the Israeli author Iczkovits in the coming days.

Michael Cader: ‘More Digital Reading and Consumption’

Publishers Marketplace’s Michael Cader in the Jerusalem International Book Forum program. Image: Publishing Perspectives

Cader’s journalistic assessment being different from that of a publisher, he went immediately to the fact that while backlist performed well as much book buying moved through e-commerce channels, “that in turn meant that new books did not perform well for the most part, and that’s going to have an effect on those authors, in particular, for some time to come.

“As we know,” Cader said, “books were challenged by everything from closed stores to postponed release dates, printing shortages, curtailed marketing and publicity—authors also suffering from reduction of other income streams that don’t come straight from their books. So reduced speaking engagements, curtailed teaching jobs, freelance work—all the things that authors depend on that their profile helps bring to them.”

“We should really expect a generation of people more comfortable than ever with digital reading and consumption.”Michael Cader, Publishers Marketplace

Cader’s survey through Publishers Marketplace of new book contracts signaled strong activity after the intitial outbreaks of the pandemic hit the market, but publisher investment in larger advances was “somewhat curtailed,” he said, with cash-careful houses “often moving to spread out their advances further, which obviously has a direct effect on authors.”

While sub-rights sales did decline across international territories, he said, they’ve recovered in the first quarter of this year, and that’s activity that normally does send revenue to authors’ bottom lines.

“Online sales did indeed do better, fantastically well,” Cader said, “but that means sales and physical bookstores both chains and independents, were significantly impaired, and an uncomfortably large number of booksellers lost their jobs or their wages.” Such damage “to those stores and those people” will take time to recover from, he said, as will the market share and consumer dynamic that gravitated to online retail. For example, this meant that specialty publishers (travel books, illustrated books, gift books, religious books) whose work sells in outlets like museum stores “may have suffered considerably and also will take some time to recover.”

Cader predicts that like the “digital acceleration” we’ve covered—that flight to digital formats and retail for many consumers—will have staying power for more operational and supply-chain factors in publishing going forward. Some areas to consider:

  • More use of print-on-demand (which can respond when centralized offset printing is affected)
  • Diversification of office- and home-based working arrangements (as many publishers discovered that having everyone physically on site may not be necessary)
  • Bookstores “engaging for real with digital formats” and subscription models (as part of a general drive to widen digital sales capability, alongside the dominance of Amazon)

“We should really expect a generation of people more comfortable than ever with digital reading and consumption,” Cader said. And he recommended that the kind of experimentation some publishers made in library licensing and pricing models should continue. One key, he noted is to look at places “where expenses got cut” under the constraints of the pandemic—to see where redeployment of resources may make sense for the long term.

Madeline McIntosh: ‘The Most Stressful Period’

Penguin Random House USA CEO Madeline McIntosh speaks in the Jerusalem International Book Forum program. Image: Publishing Perspectives

McIntosh opened by acknowledging that the experience of the United States market—while “certainly just as frightening” for Americans in terms of the contagion’s dangers and unthinkable toll in lives lost—”did diverge” from the effects encountered during the pandemic year in many other parts of the world.

One of her canniest observations was that the upheaval and inconsistency of the US patchwork of lockdowns and other spread-mitigation measures across the 50 states actually allowed for growth at times in some areas while not in others. Without the nationwide lockdown restrictions seen in many countries, “While it often made no sense from a science perspective,” she said, “from a business perspective it meant that many retailers of different kinds of businesses were able to grow, even during some of the most difficult periods.”

For example, she said, ” We had national retailers who, even when they had to shut down in some parts of their chains, were able to keep some stores open in other departments. Another example would be that big mass merchandisers and grocery chains were deemed ‘essential businesses’ and so they were able to continue to operate every day” and could continue selling books as part of their inventory.

“We did make it through. And it does indeed feel like a miracle. And I think it feels like something that we’ll be interpreting for the rest of our lives.”Madeline McIntosh, Penguin Random House USA

“The other major factor that I think made the experience in the US a little bit different,” she said, “is that we were already very much an online-anchored or online-dominated market. As Michael [Cader] rightly described, there were definitely retailers who had thought they could just ignore this online thing, and then they very much had to get with the online program—and many of them did. But the fact is that consumers did not need to be trained in how to get any anything they could possibly want” through digital retail.

She described the remarkable change for many American publishers after an extremely challenging April 2020. It became apparent starting in May a year ago that “Once consumers had taken care of all of their essential needs, they were now grabbing books,” first for “their kids who were not able to go to school. Then you could kind of see” those consumers “go through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Adults started reaching for books for their own entertainment, and some specifically for stress relief.”

Another inflection point arrived in June 2020, following the May 25 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, for which the former police officer Derek Chauvin has now been convicted on all three counts with which he was charged. In a country in which “we’re very much trying to reckon with the stark legacy of racism in our culture,” McIntosh said, “books became essential items in a process of self-education.”

McIntosh stressed that the banner year 2020 for the US market doesn’t mean that “all was really easy for the Americans. It was the most stressful period, certainly of our professional lives and for many of us also of our personal lives.

“We had to completely reinvent how to keep publishing that frontlist as well as the backlist from home in about a day.

“You know marketers spend a lot of energy on very long-range planning: all of those plans got trashed in a minute. And they had to really start in this discipline of just taking it one day at a time, one week at a time, [saying] ‘We don’t know how consumers are going to be early next week, so let’s just focus on what they’re thinking right now and do all of it online, all of it digital.’

“We had to also, as Michael said, print more books, ship more books, with less capacity than we’ve ever had. And above all, and most importantly, we had to figure out how to keep ourselves and our employees of those in warehouses—and those who were at home—safe and healthy.

“But we did make it through. And it does indeed feel like a miracle. And I think it feels like something that we’ll be interpreting for the rest of our lives.”

Noting that there were as many as 150 million more print books sold in the United States in 2020 than in 2019, McIntosh added, “Perhaps most importantly, books became central to people who before had been occasional readers. And people who are regular readers read even more.”

Next Year in Jerusalem

The Jerusalem International Book Forum is a project of the Municipality of Jerusalem, run and produced by the Ariel Municipal Company. Yoel Makov directs the forum, with Hadar Makov Hasson as artistic director and Sharon Katz as production coordinator. One element of the programming appreciated by many who know Jerusalem is the rolling round of photos that precede each day’s event, worth signing on early to enjoy.

Creating a digital event as a midpoint set of conversations to a physical forum in the spring of 2022, the Jerusalem forum 2021 will have two more digital sessions:

  • May 14: Forum Fridays–What Now?
    Moving Forward (Agents, Scouts, and Editors)
  • May 21: Forum Fridays–What Now?
    Moving Forward (Publishers)

The events’ timing is consistent in each case:

  • 15:30 to 17:30 Israel Daylight Time (IDT)
  • 13:30 to 15:30 British Summer Time (BST)
  • 8:30 am. to 10:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (ET)

Registration, free of charge, is open here for all sessions in the 2021 digital evocation of the Jerusalem International Book Forum. And more about upcoming programming is here.


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Jerusalem International Book Forum is here, more from us on publishing conferences is here, and more on the Zev Birger Editorial Fellowship is here.

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he 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.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (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.