Around half-a-million people are believed to work in the European book publishing market, which in 2021 – the latest figures available – released 575,000 new titles and generated €23.6 billion ($27.85 billion) in sales revenue.
In a clear sign of its resilience the industry, which was devastated by the pandemic and its many uncertainties, is set to make gains in 2024, too.
Almost exactly four years on since Covid-19 hit the UK, we spoke to Anthony Harvison who, together with the ex-journalist and veteran publicist Jon Kirk, runs the UK’s market-leading literary promotions agency Palamedes PR about the ongoing effects of the coronavirus on the wider publishing industry.
By The European
The European: On January 29th, 2020, the UK’s first known patients tested positive with Covid-19. In the months and years that followed, what impact did the coronavirus have on the publishing industry in the UK and Europe?
Anthony Harvison (AH): The Covid-19 outbreak presented major challenges for the publishing industry globally. It led to bookstore closures, distribution disruptions, and significant production and supply chain delays, which combined put many small publishers and bookshops out of business. Promotional efforts were also affected because media interviews and launches couldn’t take place.
These challenges prompted publishers everywhere to adapt and, in so doing, new opportunities were created that may have otherwise taken many years to emerge. Publishers focused more on online channels, for instance, leading to a surge in online sales and increased eBook and audiobook consumption across Europe and beyond. By necessity, virtual launches and online events replaced physical gatherings which, to some large degree, remains the case today.
The European: Did the increased focus on digital platforms during the pandemic change the dynamics of book marketing, and if so, how?
AH: It has, in many ways, fundamentally reshaped the landscape of book marketing, building greater connectivity and engagement between authors, publishers, and readers.
There continues to be a strong reliance on traditional media for promotion – and I don’t see that changing any time soon given the reach, the prestige, and the trust that are inbuilt into those channels – but at the same time, publicists now have a greater understanding of the power of influencers, bloggers, content creators, podcasts, and forums, and especially so with more specialist genres where the audience isn’t vast, the mainstream doesn’t care, and a concentrated approach hitting fans of those genres squarely will work far better.
There is also now far more confidence in promoting a new title digitally, be it through a dedicated and strategic social media campaign, ad campaign, Amazon promotion, blog tour, virtual event, or other form of direct engagement.
This, in turn, has led to the author, supported by their publicist and/or marketing team, taking the lead in their own promotion, producing more digital content to keep their fans happy and engaged while continually building their online presence.
The European: In what ways did the pandemic impact author-reader interactions, and how did book publicists facilitate these connections?
AH: With in-person events proving impossible for a large stretch of the pandemic, readers largely relied on the social media output of authors. And with so much free time suddenly on their hands, they tended to hang on every new post or video.
Platforms such as Twitter ( now ‘X’), Instagram and Facebook had for some time already allowed the public to follow their favourite authors, but it was, perhaps, considered more of a secondary comms channel by publicists pre-pandemic. Now we’re in a different era where a single tweet by a celebrity can by itself make the national news.
Canny publicists were quick to recognise the true value and potential of digital comms and helped plan and deliver a regular flow of engaging and follower-building content, monitoring the take-up and adjusting accordingly to get their clients seen, liked, and reshared. At the same time, they looked outwards to other online communities, such as influencers, book clubs and book bloggers, to get more people talking about their clients, and as a result boosting their followings.
They have also understood the importance of digital cross-pollination, building up a client’s overall online presence to strengthen the connection with readers and the effective distribution of their messages. A modern, engaging, and user-friendly website packed with information and multi-media content, as well as newsletters and plenty of links to the latest news, promotional events, or media coverage, has pretty much become a ‘must’ for authors rather than a ‘desirable’.
The European: How did the cancellation of physical book events influence the strategies for promoting debut authors and new book releases?
AH: There was a dramatic shift towards online events, given that in-person events were either entirely out of the question or, later on during the pandemic, severely restricted.
Tools like Zoom exploded in popularity for this purpose, and continues to dominate today, eclipsing the likes of Skype. The trend towards streaming has only continued to grow since then. Why? Because it is convenient, enabling authors and publishers to instantly connect with consumers, the media, and other audiences wherever they are in the world.
That’s not to say, of course, that an audience is guaranteed but it has certainly democratised the field, in that those with a smaller marketing budget can as easily orchestrate a virtual promotional event as their larger competitors without the old financial worries. And with streaming tools becoming ever-more sophisticated, easily allowing for interaction between host and guests, the only thing missing is the catering! That said, the very democratisation of events means that in-person promotions have been elevated in stature post-pandemic, carrying a greater cache then perhaps before.
The European: Were there specific genres or types of books that saw a surge in popularity during the pandemic, and how did book publicists adjust their marketing strategies accordingly?
AH: It’s no understatement that books, or more correctly the act of reading, helped us get through the pandemic without losing our minds. That said, there were certain genres that seemed to resonate more with readers than others.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all forms of escapist fiction shot up in popularity, be it thrillers, mysteries, adventures, historicals, or romances, as people sought to take their mind off the worries of the real world and find some comfort in good, old-fashion entertainment. Books that provided useful instruction, such as cookbooks or self-improvement guides, also hit the spot, again because the nation suddenly had lots of leisure time on its hands and could invest more in personal development than before.
Good book publicists understood what was driving the trend and catered to those needs, bringing more content to hungry audiences. The dominance of social media during this time easily allowed for the delivery of exclusive behind-the-scenes material, author interviews, extracts, audiobook snippets and so forth, as well as to stir up sales through discounts, competitions, and giveaways. They spread the word by teaming up with influencers, bloggers, podcasters, book forums and online clubs catering to fans of those genres to extend further into those audiences and build a buzz, as well as doubling down on online advertising, email marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), especially pushing a new release’s digital formats – eBook & audiobook – as they can be purchased and delivered instantly at the click of a button.
The European: Looking ahead, what lasting changes in book marketing strategies do you anticipate based on the lessons learned during the pandemic?
AH: There will only ever be a stronger interest in digital promotion, taking in grassroots-level engagement through influencer partnerships, blog tours, online advertising; the dissemination of digital content such as podcasts, videos, or streaming events connected to a particular book and author; and the construction of a robust online presence through a professional website, well-curated social platforms, and author pages on prominent sales platforms such as Amazon.
The exciting thing is that the smart publicist can spearhead the generation of content, for instance assisting with the creation of an author’s own branded podcast or YouTube channel, rather than rely on others to interview their client to contribute. This does, of course, cost money but in terms of reinforcing the connection between the author and reader, and providing a wealth of content for social sharing, it can’t be beaten. By the same token, virtual launch events can now be easily orchestrated without having to leave your desk. At the same time, they can do as they have always done – generating good media coverage – to further populate digital platforms with coverage, media soundbites, endorsements and the like. It is a virtuous circle.
With an author’s digital footprint now pre-eminent, publicists will be swotting up on the intricacies of effective SEO more and more so that their clients’ shop window, their website, will be more visible in search engines, and keeping a close eye on the growth or otherwise of their social platforms, tracking and responding to engagement metrics, audience demographics and sales data for ever-more targeted marketing. They’ll also be dedicating more and more space in their contacts books, once reserved to journalists, to influencers, bloggers, vloggers, and other content creators as they continue to grow in popularity with the public.
The digital genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and that’s no bad thing at all, adding more powerful and cost-friendly channels to the traditional marketing mix.