For two decades, I have delved into the mechanics of how things move, how raw materials reach factories, and how finished products reach consumers. Logistics and supply chain are not just my profession but my passion. But nothing could have prepared me and our companies for Covid-19.

As essential services, we had to remain operational throughout the lockdown. We had to upgrade and adapt to new operating procedures almost overnight. Social distancing, staggered shifts, sanitisation of our facilities and decontamination of the constant flow of cargo were all a challenge initially. We had to reimagine our role as a logistics provider completely.

All operations need careful planning and continuous risk mitigation. That is the nature of the beast. But the pandemic created circumstances where the risk was unknown and unseen, and moved with great speed. Our first priority was the safety of our people. Our second was to maintain a certain standard of time and cost efficacy whilst introducing additional safety measures in our operations. This was hard as situation and lockdown guidelines kept changing.

A Gutenberg moment

Initially, the demand for food items and household products went up significantly and created skewed demand scenarios and stock-outs. As the lockdown progressed, people began to adjust to the new normal and ordered laptops, electronics, games, recreational items and books. Most bookstores were closed, so it was largely e-commerce aggregators who swung into action to deliver books.

Perhaps no one in the publishing industry had imagined a scenario where bookstores would remain closed for months. Publishers for the first time saw e-book sales and online purchases surpass offline bookstore sales. People wanted to get books, but safely. In the absence of other options, they naturally turned to e-books. Many wondered whether bookstores would re-open at all, and if so, when.

The bookstore today is a node in the distribution chain, but we forget that it has also been a place for exchange of ideas. The oldest operating bookstore in the world is the Livraria Bertrand. Established in 1732 in Lisbon, Portugal, it operates today in more than 50 locations. Pedro Faure, who founded it and later partnered with Pierre Bertrand, imagined the bookstore as a focal point for intellectual conversations and a meeting point for writers, thinkers and book-lovers, and not merely a point of sale.

Bookstores like the Livraria Bertrand and the entire publishing industry owe their existence to Johannes Gutenberg, the German goldsmith who introduced the movable type printing in 1439. The printing press transformed the rules of writing and publishing, giving birth to modern publishing practices.

We are in fact in what we can call a “Gutenberg Moment” for publishing today. The advent of e-books, internet and online booksellers has been reshaping global publishing and distribution for almost a decade. But no one expected a pandemic to reengineer the way people read and purchase books in such a short span of time.

Beyond point of sale

As the impact of the pandemic sunk in, publishers across the world turned to online platforms to maintain a functioning supply chain of books. Online platforms have a strategic advantage with their robust logistics operations. They have mastered the art of storing and distributing a plethora of products, and books are no exception. For bookstores to achieve these efficiencies, they may have to depend on hyperlocal delivery aggregators.

Many have tried this already. What bookstores need to focus on is the value they can add to this entire process. The hyperlocal delivery partner is simply a distribution arm – they cannot attract customers or generate interest in books. This responsibility remains with the bookstore.

In the pre-Covid world, a customer walked into the bookstore, browsed, sometimes talked to the store owner or manager to get a better sense of an unknown author or a book, and completed the purchase. In the new normal, the possibility of a customer walking into a store has been reduced greatly owing to safety concerns. Therefore, bookstores must take the experience of browsing and discussing books online.

This is not so hard to do. Online sessions are still limited to book launches, but a bookstore can build online conversations around a specific genre or have an author give a talk and create an online group of customers who exchange ideas and have meaningful conversations. This is the value a bookstore can bring.

As the unlock guidelines come into effect, people are stepping out while bookstores are opening up. This is an opportune time for a bookstore to reposition itself and go beyond being a point of sale. There is also a trick or two to learn from companies like Urban Ladder and Pepper Fry, who invite you to their physical stores to see their furniture. A sales agent sits with you with a tablet device and helps you order your furniture online to complete the transaction. The furniture is delivered to your home from the warehouse and not from the store.

In essence, these companies have used the stores to attract customers, give information and facilitate a sense of touch and feel about their products. They are using their stores to showcase their products and build customer interest for them. They are not using them as a distribution point. Bookstores can then become a place to convene and discuss ideas and purchase books, while the actual delivery of books can happen at the customer’s doorstep directly from the publisher’s warehouses.

This can change the dynamics of the industry and may need all stakeholders to explore and experiment together. It will require new skills for the bookstore staff; publishers will need to hold inventories at their own warehouses on behalf of the bookstores they deal with, and in some cases eliminate the need for bookstores to hold inventory at all.

For the past few years, express companies such as DHL have been experimenting with a new model for hyper-local urban deliveries through a concept called Social Supply Chains. Social Supply Chains use social networks, collaborative tools and social data to bring efficiency to supply chains. In its experiment, DHL introduced its MyWays mobile app in Sweden.

Anyone with the app could become a volunteer to deliver a DHL package and earn money. It was facilitated through DHL service points in the area.The operational modalities were quite simple. A customer purchased a product online and specified time and place for delivery, and agreed to the cost.

The package was then registered in the system and made available for other Stockholm citizens to view as open for delivery through the MyWays platform. Anyone interested and capable of the delivery could pick-up the parcel from a DHL service point, deliver it to the customer, and earn a delivery fee.

Bookstores can take a leaf out from this experiment and invite patrons to be delivery partners for a fee. Currently, bookstores are responsible for the sale and distribution of the inventory they keep. But what if they create a patron-based app that can allow customers to place orders on it and specify the time and place of delivery for a price?

Others customers on the app can then view the order and offer to deliver the book. The added advantage is that patrons are not just random volunteers or delivery partners, but book aficionados themselves. This will create not just a dedicated distribution network but also a loyal cohort of customers for a bookstore.

Reinventing the book for new technologies

We must also accept that Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain et al are transforming society, and the world of books will not remain unaffected. The age of the visual story is upon us, and books of the future may not be just written words but a complete package of written and visual elements.

Imagine a scenario where a book asks you to scan a QR code to experience the narrative visually on your phone. The book serves to lay the groundwork for the concept, while the online content gives a complete visual explanation. Together, they provide a cohesive narrative.

A travel book may be written in a way where the book gives you part of the story, while the rest is experienced through online videos. A biography may be released with the author using OTT platforms to add to the stories in the book. A non-fiction book on innovation may be supported by visual elements that showcase the innovations in the book. A business book can be supported by AI-driven tools that allow for capturing reactions of the readers on a real time basis to support the hypothesis visually.

Such advancements will pose new challenges for publishing and distribution as the content will need to be delivered physically as a book and also online in complete sync, creating a hybrid supply chain in the physical and online world. In fact, new hybrid supply chains may become a norm and a book may be fully experienced through both online and printed formats together and not as two exclusive formats. How will the traditional distribution chain fare then?

The answer lies in how adaptive these organisations will be to the changes. Many music stores closed down when digital music took over. Who could have imagined a phone would play music? Similarly, Calm is a wellness app and lists stories read out by professional actors that help you sleep better. The narrative is interspersed with contextual music and voice modulation planned to achieve the end goal.

These are the future opportunities of co-creation. Those who will explore them with a sense of adventure are bound to be ahead of the race, and in many instances be the ones to survive the winds of change.

The pandemic has sprung many challenges, but it has also created an opportunity to reimagine the publishing and book supply chain. Bookstores were the first to feel the brunt, and must therefore re-examine their role and ask questions about what value they add to the supply chain. They can use technology and innovative ideas to anchor customers and go beyond being just a point of sale.

Publishers can relook at entire supply chains and explore efficient solutions that keep in mind future realities. Both bookstores and publishers can also take this opportunity to dive deeper into the purpose their organisations serve for the reader and marketplace.

Once we are ready to question ourselves, we are ready to explore the unknown. After all, humanity has written on stone tablets and wood paper, and scribes have made way for the printing press. But through it all the core purpose of the written word has remained unchanged – to tell a story, to share an idea and to inspire conversations that fire the imagination and catalyse social advancement.

Bhairavi Jani is executive director at the SCA Group of Companies, which is involved in activities in supply chain and logistics. Her father Tushar Kumudrai Jani is the founder of Blue Dart.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.