Dusseldorf Like so many others these days, Saša Stanišić is sitting at home, indulging in a beer and grinning, admitting that he feels like a presenter of the daily foam. Well, not entirely: “Training pants below, shirt above.”
Then the author starts on time with his “living room reading”, reads excerpts from his works online. In his home four walls, Stanišić appears even more likeable, almost more authentic than in front of an audience.
It is almost forgotten that the online presence of many authors these days is nothing more than emergency solutions. Reading trips and personal contact with fans are currently taboo – many authors make a large part of their livelihood with readings.
In addition, the book trade and small and medium-sized publishers are particularly affected by the consequences of the corona pandemic. The Leipzig Book Fair has been canceled, and festivals such as Litcologne and the Berlin Book Days in June are also to be postponed.
Sales across the market are slumping. Since last weekend at the latest, the approximately 6,000 booksellers are almost no longer allowed to let customers into their stores anywhere in Germany. Orders are placed online for this, but this by no means offsets brick-and-mortar sales, which recently accounted for around 47 percent of the entire market.
Even those who already run a well-functioning web shop are currently losing 20 to 40 percent in sales, reports Iris Hunscheid, who runs two bookstores in Bonn and Achim with her husband. Those who are poorly positioned digitally have to forego half of the income.
The dealers still have the entire spring program in stock – and have already paid for it. Hardly anyone is now putting new works into the shops that nobody can browse anymore. Of course there are also e-books. But in 2018, they only made up five percent of the audience’s share of sales. Many publishers have therefore postponed new releases until further notice.
If the approximately 3,000 publishers still had sales of 5.14 billion euros in 2018, this will collapse significantly this year. How many of the 25,000 employees can be kept in the publishing houses depends on the duration of the crisis. There are no bankruptcies yet, but that could change soon. One of the largest book markets in the world – it is increasingly stalling.
“And then Corona came”
The year had actually started well for Herrmann-Josef Emons. His Cologne-based publisher of the same name increased sales by ten percent compared to the previous year. In Switzerland, one of his crime titles even made first place on the bestseller list. “And then Corona came,” says Emons. “As a publisher with regional titles, we have to be present in the book trade. That is now a thing of the past. “
They reached the absolute low point of the crisis at the end of last week: daily sales fell to 2,000 euros, as the publisher openly admits. “Otherwise it is between 10,000 and 15,000 euros.” After all: the start of the week went a little better, the daily turnover leveled off at around 5000 euros. “Perhaps this is due to increasing online sales,” says Emons.
With 32 employees and an annual turnover of eight million euros, his publishing house is one of the medium-sized companies in Germany. It is a difficult size when it comes to help, says Emons. “Then you are too big or too small.” He is currently working on the subject of short-time work.
He shows solidarity with the bookstores. “We publishers rely on retailers to survive,” he says. For example, the publisher raised the payment target for small bookstores: from 60 to 120 days. He considers the nationwide closings of bookstores to be wrong. “Books are nothing more than spiritual nourishment.”
The bookstores in Germany employ 27,500 people. Around 90 percent of the stores are smaller, independent of large chains. Many of them run their own web shops, some have also come together to offer online.
Cities and municipalities regulate whether booksellers are still allowed to deliver, so far this has been possible almost everywhere. Occasionally there is even a kind of kiosk sale or picking up from boxes in front of the shop.
“The supply chain in our industry continues to work very well,” says Alexander Skipis, managing director of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels. Books ordered today could usually be delivered the next day. Skipis hopes that customers will continue to shop locally.
“The strength of the German book industry is precisely this small-scale nature and diversity, the quality on site,” he says. In this country you have a fine network of bookstores and small publishers, right down to the capillaries. The crisis could mean a deep cut – in the cultural supply of society.
“The return on sales at bookstores and publishers is relatively low, in most cases it is between one and three percent,” he says. Only very few could build up financial cushions, which is why the crisis is fully felt by many. Skipis assesses the planned aid from the German government positively: “We very much recognize that the aid should now be launched quickly,” he says.
But the payments should now also reach publishers and dealers unbureaucratically: “We are nearing the end of the month, the rents are due.” Skipis therefore appeals to the solidarity of the landlords and calculates that only one per month at all German bookstores Rent “of around 15 million euros” due.
For Ralf Kramp, it was a “walk of tears,” as he explains. A few days ago, the author and publisher strolled through the rooms of his crime scene and turned down the radiators, one by one: in his bookstore, in the crime café and, finally, in the rooms of his KBV publishing house.
Hillesheim is actually a stronghold for crime fans. Every year, around 30,000 people from all over Germany and the Benelux countries come to the region to visit the locations of the books, and another 10,000 book guided tours. And now? Yawning emptiness.
Although Kramp has three mainstays with his wife, he is also the author of the Eifel thrillers and does up to 90 readings a year. But all this is of no use. “We spread the risk. And yet everything is breaking away now, ”says the 56-year-old. But he remains optimistic. Hillesheim is a magical attraction. After the pandemic, he hopes that tourists and readers will come back.
Until then, Kramp tries to save costs. In his publishing house, three employees, twelve new books should appear in the spring. Four of them are not going to print at first. On Tuesday morning, Kramp then received other bad news: his publisher reported that Amazon currently changing its warehouse policy.
The shipping of household goods, medical supplies and other products with high demand is preferred to the US online giant in the crisis. Books are no longer prioritized, order times are extended. By the beginning of May, Amazon no longer wants to include new books in its stores.
For many small publishers, this is an additional blow. “It is very dramatic for us,” explains Hamburg publisher Björn Bedey. In the print sector, his 20-man operation makes 30 to 40 percent of sales through Amazon. It’s even more with e-books.
“Small publishers hardly have a chance at the big bookstore chains, but at Amazon we are on the table on an equal footing, the customer decides,” says Bedey. He is now in crisis mode and has requested short-time work for all employees.
For the past few years, his publishing house has always lived from hand to mouth. “But now nothing is in hand, we see our existence threatened.” Loans are all well and good, but only shifted the problems. “The state would have to subsidize our industry, as it has long done with opera, theater and the film industry,” he says.
The fear of survival is at stake. In the past few days, the telephone wires at the Börsenverein were hot. Dealers and publishers wanted to know: what should happen next? How do I get help? But there are also bright spots.
Be creative, develop digital offers
Anyone who dares to innovate digitally, whoever gets creative in times of crisis, can also be a winner in corona times. Just like the Wochenschau Verlag in Frankfurt: Although almost all 15 employees currently work in their home office, they digitized their flagship within a week.
Actually, they only wanted to take the “Wochenschau” themed booklet for school lessons into the digital age at the end of the year. Now publisher Tessa Debus and her colleagues have done it ad hoc. “I was thrilled to see how all the employees pulled together,” Debus says on the phone.
Of course there will also be a drop in sales for them, so far the specialist publisher for political education has been earning more with printed books, which most recently had an annual turnover of 1.6 million euros.
But for the time being, they would get through the crisis well and have not yet needed short-time work: “Fortunately, the publishing house has always developed positively in recent years,” she reports. Also because there are three mainstays: First, Debus publishes magazines for associations, but with “Politics”, it is also a political science publication that is available at the station kiosk.
Debus advertises most new publications with information letters or mailings. Your customers don’t look at the shelves – they order the books they want to read directly. In addition, there is the textbook and teaching material segment, which is currently attracting enormous amounts through homeschooling. The third pillar are specialist books and scientific publications – the digital channel is also growing properly.
The industry’s resourcefulness – it can also be a great opportunity. Booksellers have long been offering facetime advice to customers or uploading reading recommendations to YouTube. “It touches me every day what is being tried everywhere,” says bookseller Hunscheid. Few would bury their heads in the sand. “We are currently experiencing a lot of love, solidarity and appreciation from our customers.”
More: These literary stars compose on Instagram