IPA’s New ‘Inspire’ Report: Lessons from the Pandemic

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The two-year ‘Inspire’ project report from the IPA highlights solidarity and a need for common reporting standards.

A rowing team on the Narrando at Zumaia in Spain’s Basque country, June 12, 2019. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Yury Karamanenko

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

Al Qasimi: ‘To Find Community’
Released on Friday (April 29), A Collective Commitment to a Sustainable, Resilient, and Inclusive Future is the concluding report in the first phase of the International Publishers Association‘s (IPA) “Inspire” project.

The “Inspire Charter” was introduced in September of last year, with a broad base of publishers’ associations, book fairs, and other organizations already in place as signatories. The use of the word inspire is acronymic for International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience (PDF).

Work was done on the new plan during Frankfurter Buchmesse, a signatory to the original charter, and a symposium was held in mid-February. The instigating factor had been the association’s creation of From Response to Recovery, a unique effort at gathering input on the impact of the still-ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic that created a 33-member-association baseline to see what commonalities and distinctions were being encountered in the effects of the crisis.

And the exercise now has produced its two-year assessment, which includes a time line now clarifying that IPA opened its effort on March 26, 2020, about a week after the World Health Organization designated the contagion as having reached the status of a pandemic.

The opening pages of the report include that time line, a background article which reviews elements of the crisis as understood from the publishing perspective, and a foreword from Bodour Al Qasimi—IPA’s president who has led the Inspire effort and traveled extensively to meet with industry leaders in various parts of the world for their input.

Casting the findings of the effort in terms of “challenges” and “opportunities,” the document captures not only the hurdles encountered by world publishing and its people but also the huge range of effects and impact of the pathogen’s progress from market to market. One of the most helpfully forthright lines in the text is on Page 15 in which the report talks of inviting the input of more than 150 publishing leaders:

“With participation from value chain participants from across the publishing ecosystem in more than 40 countries, drawing definitive conclusions from the Inspire consultations has been extremely challenging.”

That’s a clear statement of why such an undertaking as this is both difficult and rewarding. Publishing is not one thing, and neither is the experience of everyone in it.

Al Qasimi is especially good in her foreword, at explaining the effect of this. She writes:

Bodour Al Qasimi

“The recovery of global publishing has not been equally distributed. While some publishing markets have fully recovered, some of our colleagues are still struggling.

“The risk we face now is an uneven, multi-track recovery which produces publishing haves and have-nots.

“Many of our colleagues, including authors, illustrators, printers, distributors, booksellers, libraries, and retailers, are still deeply affected by the pandemic.

“They continue to need support and initiatives like Inspire that allow them to find community and assistance.”

‘Common Reporting Standards’

Response to the Inspire initiative has been strong, as we’ve reported, with more than 60 organizations linked to the publishing industry engaged. The resulting documentation makes a five-part division of major areas of concern:

  • Strengthening copyright in a digital era
  • Countering rising threats to the freedom to publish
  • Addressing sustainability through collective action
  • Mainstreaming diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Mastering technology for innovation and transformation

Of course, the offerings of the newly opened IPA Academy are responsive to some of these concerns, especially in the wake of the “digital acceleration” of the pandemic’s effects in some areas.

But what the Inspire report’s primary value ultimately may be is that it establishes some of the points that can most easily be missed in what might seem logical approaches to progress. And in many cases, the challenges at the world level come back to one of the oldest, almost hackneyed issues in international work: translation. Are we actually understanding each other when we talk of various barriers to progress? And are we making valid assumptions about other markets when looking at our own?

For example, the report points out that “The imprecise meaning of diversity and inclusion and the extent to which it includes social identifiers, socioeconomic status, education level, level of physical ability, and other factors” can be part of the challenge facing publishing in the diversity arena.

Another one that might almost get past you: “Evolving business models, formats, and sales channels require digitizing the full value chain.” As soon as you read that, it makes sense. Next it sinks right in as one of the heaviest moments in the entire report. It’s impossible to look at a single player on that value chain—such as a fine bookstore struggling to reach its customers online—without looking at the digital infrastructure around that bookstore, including the question of how digitally fluent those customers may be: if you build it, will they know how to come?

And more than once—this is perhaps the most important signal—a need for common reporting standards is mentioned in the report.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, one of the most vexing problems simply in comparing the book business characteristics of one market to another’s is just this. Apples-and-oranges comparisons are frequent, and simply trying to understand each other’s challenges can be deceptively difficult.

“Despite exposing cracks in the foundation of global publishing, the pandemic has strengthened publishing ecosystem cooperation and mutual respect. This renewed sense of industry solidarity seems likely to be one enduring positive of the pandemic on global publishing.”International Publishers Association, 'Inspire' Report

If anything, in fact, the IPA Inspire process may have put its finger onto the first hurdle the industry as a whole needs address: that inability to coherently compare survey and study data at times, because reporting standards vary so widely from market to market and region to region. And until there’s a common understanding of what colleagues are facing, the industry will remain hobbled to some degree in moving on such issues in concert.

“No common reporting standards [exist] to measure and communicate sustainability efforts,” for example, is one of the issues the report is flagging when it comes to questions of climate change and other issues in sustainability.

The opportunity to “benchmark global libel and expression laws for targeted advocacy” in the freedom to publish area is critical, of course, but again, there needs to be a common idea of what the freedom to publish can mean as you move across the world’s markets. Many things can compromise that freedom, including, as the report reminds us, self-censorship.

Ultimately, then, the Inspire project is notable for having pulled together the outlines, the roadmap to so many challenges.

At the top-line level of copyright, freedom to publish, sustainability, diversity, and digital capability, we know that we’re looking at shared challenges. What the project goes on to reveal is how just how much the professionals of the publishing industry must be willing to learn each other’s languages, if you will–to see at a granular level what factors are at play in one market and not in another.

To move in unity of spirit, to be in “Inspired,” the International Publishers Association’s leadership knows, is the first step in what now becomes needs-assessment at many levels across many frontiers.

“The Inspire initiative has taken an ecosystem-based approach to bringing global publishing together at one of the most uncertain times in the industry’s history,” the conclusion of the 15-page report reads. “In the process, Inspire has solidified multi-stakeholder coalitions to effectively lobby governments for support while also forging a renewed sense of industry cohesiveness focused on common priorities and rooted in partnership.”

It’s that sense of cohesiveness and partnership that will drive forward this unusually broad framework of insights.

A copy of the report, A Collective Commitment to a Sustainable, Resilient, and Inclusive Future, is here in PDF.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the International Publishers Association is here, more on the work of Bodour Al Qasimi is here, and more on digital publishing is here

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the International Publishers Association.

More from us 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 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 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.