The arm of my eyeglasses snapped off; I dropped my mobile phone and was rewarded with a spider web screen; I went to my neighbourhood hospital complaining of a stomach ache, and was told that I needed immediate bowel surgery. What, why? When disaster strikes, it comes from all sides. After five days of the sweetest possible care in the intensive care unit, I was presented with a bill that almost sent me into a cardiac arrest.
Then I learnt that while I was in the ICU, the country had gone into lockdown.
From the beginning of the year, anyone with half an eye on the news knew that a deadly virus was ravaging parts of China and that there was a high chance it would spread globally. Many of us continued to travel, convinced we would not be affected by “some unknown virus”. Few of us imagined it would spread as fast or as furiously as it did. None of us imagined the myriad ways in which it would affect us – whether we caught the virus ourselves or not.
And because we didn’t think ahead, because we didn’t ask ourselves what it meant for us, or how we would deal with it if it happened – of course it caught us unawares. From Corona to Covid-19, we soon learnt the name of this potentially deadly virus that was sweeping the world.
Locked down overnight
Like most small publishers who concentrate on producing high quality books, we rely on established bookshops for the major part of our sales. Suddenly, as shops closed their doors, our inventories stagnated, sales were non-existent and revenue sources were abruptly cut off. Sri Lankan booksellers are tardy with payments at the best of times; in a newspaper article in mid-May, one of our biggest booksellers, Vijitha Yapa, who runs an eponymous bookstore, announced he would be unable to pay his creditors because his shops have been closed. Business that has ground to a halt does not bode well for anyone.
Helplessly, we added the word “pandemic” to our daily vocabulary, kept tabs on how it was spreading, but still couldn’t imagine what it might have meant to live through or conduct livelihoods through other global pandemics like cholera, malaria or the Spanish flu. After all, life continued more or less normally for those unaffected directly by recent epidemics like AIDS, SARS and H1N1. Why would this be any different?
The world has become an interlinked marketplace that functions organically, where business and professions even in exotic sectors continue unabated despite wars and natural disasters. We waited for change, or at least for a quick return to normalcy.
The extended lockdown has caused many problems for us which remain without solutions. Since Sri Lanka compounded the lockdown with a curfew in the capital Colombo, two new titles that we printed in India have been stuck at the port. First, ostensibly because only essential items were being unloaded from ships; second, because the bureaucratically exacting Sri Lankan Customs insist on seeing original invoices to clear goods, disregarding email copies even if sent directly to them.
India being under a strict lockdown too, my printer wasn’t able to courier anything to anyone. Soon, we would have the pleasure of paying demurrage and port charges to clear our books. In the meantime, local printers too were obliged to close shop, notifying us of half-completed print jobs languishing in their warehouses.
Regardless of whether they can come to work or not, we have a moral obligation to pay our staff. We grappled with ways to do this while staying in business, but were forced to accept defeat. Cashflow is the lifeline of any small enterprise. Apart from editing, there is only so much work that can be done from home.
Like many other small publishers around the world, we were forced to downsize, letting some staff go, and reducing the workload and pay-checks of others. Given that the lockdown was quasi-global, there was no way of conducting business with overseas partners either, or even of forming new alliances.
In what seems like a universal strategy, we deferred future book releases and decided to concentrate on innovatively moving inventory. But with shops closed, and with no one being able to go out, we quickly hit another dead end. This was a perfect time to sit and think: what do we do now?
Competing with a cultural explosion
Although books are never high on anyone’s shopping list, publishers could be forgiven for thinking that a population behind doors would soon turn to books. We eased up on the panic button, telling ourselves that part of our business plan already lay in e-books and online sales from our own and a multitude of other websites. But neither of these two avenues have yielded high results so far, perhaps because we hadn’t tried hard enough.
Still, let’s be positive, we told ourselves; we can kickstart this programme and make it work. We rolled up our sleeves, encouraged our designer to work from home and flooded our blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and Instagram with tantalising information about how unique our books are. After all, our reach is global on the internet and not limited to brick-and-mortar shops. We could dream again.
As expected, online orders started coming in. But oops, the post office was closed indefinitely, breaking the delivery chain. Only the most expensive courier companies offered somewhat desultory and unaffordable services, and couldn’t provide an economically viable solution to our needs. Reluctantly,we wrote to everyone who bought online, saying we would deliver orders as soon as we could and begged for both patience and goodwill.
We brainstormed with fellow publishers on how to share resources and deliver books at least locally, and managed to piggy back on tuk-tuks delivering groceries to homes. In time, we ferreted out small courier companies who operated efficiently and chalked up a minor triumph in local delivery.
In the meantime, all across the world, books competed fiercely with other cultural experiences being offered up for free during the lockdown. Free movies, free concerts, free opera, free music, free literary festivals and free talk shows – the global citizen’s access to high and even low culture was so unfettered that many of us are approaching cultural saturation during the lockdown. My wife, who always enjoyed classical music but sniffed at opera, is now an aficionado. How could we compete? Again, in another unoriginal move, we too began offering large chunks of our books for free and enjoyed the conversations we initiated among Instagrammers.
Goodwill is key to any long-term mission aimed at raising one’s profile. We joined rapidly growing Facebook groups like Publishers Without Borders, which has already gathered more than 3000 members and listened in to varied coping mechanisms and strategies from far-flung nations. My partner Ameena Hussein contributed a page to the 91st Meridian, an intermittent online journal that explored lessons learned from the pandemic in various countries.
I participated in my first-ever webinar with Pick a Book, Sri Lanka whose members were keen to know the mechanics of publishing a book. The session, which was uploaded on their Facebook page, gathered more than 11,000 views, proving that there are still a fair number of people with a story to tell – I for one am looking forward to a slew of new manuscripts that will emerge from the lockdown.
What lies ahead?
My doctor had told me that convalescence would take three months and that I shouldn’t exert myself or lift anything heavier than a book – I shouldn’t even drive a car. I have to confess that through it all, and despite its many negatives, I was secretly happy about curfew in the capital. We live and work in the heart of Colombo, with easy access to where you want to be. The downside was that the neighbourhood is busy, noisy and chaotic during normal times.
Through the lockdown, however, this became one of the quietest of havens, and a pleasant area to live in. Of course, the curfew would be relaxed sooner or later, and the madness of Colombo would recommence, shattering my fragile peace. From all accounts, lifting the lockdown, even though we may be masked, does not mean we are safe just yet. Still, I can finally replace the frames of my glasses and the shattered screen of my phone.
We will continue to ask ourselves: What is a book, and how should it look? The immediate future doesn’t look rosy for smaller publishers. The financial setback of being deprived of any income for over 60 days might be irreparable. Few of us will achieve our so-called targets this year.
Our faithful readers have been deprived of so many other things during the lockdown that it is unrealistic to imagine bookshops will be taken by storm the moment they re-open. It will take at least another six months for disposable income levels to recover. In the meantime, no one will be bending over backwards to offer rebates on utilities, lease rentals, or operating expenses to stay in business. However, at the very beginning of the lockdown, the Sri Lanka Publishers’ Association offered a generous interest-free loan to all its members, which I was happy to make use of.
Paper books continue to hold a certain allure for the compulsive reader. The smell of crisp fresh paper, the attractive design of a cover, the font, the layout, the myriad little details that supplement the writing and tight editing of a traditional book – all of these enhance the reading experience, but they unravel in the e-format.
Curating ebooks isn’t possible, and readers will not enjoy the extra effort publishers put into packaging books. I myself change the fonts and background colour of books I download. Still, publishers might do well to revise their print-runs downward and spend more on the promotion of ebooks, rather than letting the books sell themselves while treating ebooks as just icing on the cake.
Regardless of how the dust settles, people have always been hungry for good stories. A publisher’s job is to bring that story successfully to fruition. The medium of expression could change on the whims of the moment – whether it’s paper, audio, celluloid, ebook or some other digital format should be immaterial. They who get the story across effectively will survive.
One of my favourite quotations is attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero: “We live in terrible times. Crime is on the rise, children don’t listen to their parents and everyone is writing a book.” What was true more than 50 years before the Common Era began will continue to hold true tomorrow, and the publisher’s task of connecting writers with readers will survive.
Sam Perera is Publisher and Managing Partner at the small and independent Perera-Hussein Publishing House, based in Sri Lanka, whose active list can be found on www.pererahussein.com and in select bookshops across the English-speaking world.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.