The latest of our IPA in Conversation with … sees Li Pengyi, Vice President of the Publishers Association of China (PAC), tell us about how the COVID-19 Pandemic has affected publishing in China and how Chinese publishers have reacted quickly to keep people reading and learning.
Firstly, on behalf of the Publishers Association of China, I`d like to express our solicitude for the health of all IPA members. Our joint effort is needed to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that also presents opportunities for us to consolidate our unity.
For those readers who don’t know. Tell us about the lockdown measures in China. Was the lockdown everywhere or just in certain regions? How strict were the lockdown measures?
The fight against Covid-19 is a war that humanity has to win. Faced with this unknown, unexpected, and devastating disease, China takes people’s lives and health as its top priority and consistently follows the principle of lawful, scientific, and precise prevention and control. We quickly mobilized the entire society and population to implement the most comprehensive, strictest, and thorough prevention and control measures throughout the country. All the Chinese people have since been engaged in this general war against the pandemic. In accordance with our national conditions, and by following the laws of virology and epidemiology, we have taken three key steps, namely controlling the source of infection, blocking the transmission chain of the virus, and protecting the susceptible groups. Specifically, close attention has been given to four categories of people – confirmed cases, suspected cases, feverish patients, and close contacts. Orderly procedures have been put in place for early detection, early reporting, early quarantine, and early treatment. In practice, all those in need have been hospitalized, treated, tested or quarantined, respectively. Thus, the virus has been effectively prevented from spreading widely through efforts at both the prevention and the treatment ends.
Hubei Province and Wuhan City were the main battlefields. China has won the battle by mobilizing resources from across the whole country. On 22 January, movement of people and traffic out of Hubei and Wuhan were blocked; public transport in Wuhan and many other places of Hubei was suspended. All communities of Wuhan were put under 24-hour quarantine: no one was allowed to leave or enter except for medical and/or anti-pandemic reasons. The community boards were responsible for supplying daily necessities for their residents. Meanwhile, China launched the largest medical support operation since the founding of new China. A total of 346 medical teams composed of 42,600 medical workers and over 900 public health workers, as well as huge amounts of medical supplies from across the country were dispatched to Hubei and Wuhan. In about 3 months, China won the decisive victory in defending Wuhan City and Hubei Province by raising admission and cure rates, and lowering infection and fatality rates.
In other places of China, a multi-level, category-specific, dynamic and targeted approach was adopted to both urban communities and rural villages. People going in and out need to be registered and have their body temperature taken. To better prevent and control the epidemic, each region at or above the county level was classified by risk level on the basis of a comprehensive evaluation of factors such as population and number of infections in a given period of time. There are three levels of risk: low, medium, and high. Regions could take measures according to the risk level, which was dynamic and adjusted in light of the evolving situation. Border control was tightened to suspend non-urgent and nonessential outbound travel by Chinese citizens.
The epidemic prevention and control measures in China have been extraordinarily strict, but also pragmatic and humane. People's wellbeing and their normal work and daily life are ensured to the maximum extent; and all the people voluntarily follow the overall requirements for epidemic prevention and control. Through arduous efforts, China has made significant strategic achievements in the fight against Covid-19, protecting lives and public safety, and making important contributions to securing regional and international public health. By the time I was accepting this interview (24 o’clock of July 5, 2020), a cumulative total of 85,320 confirmed cases had been reported, 80,157 infected had been cured and discharged from hospital, 4,648 people had died, on the Chinese mainland.
On 7 June, the Information Office of the State Council of China published a white paper titled "Fighting COVID-19: China in Action", which records the progress of China fighting against Covid-19. For those who might be interested, you can find online the content in English version.
2. Were bookstores closed? Home deliveries allowed?
The bookstores were all closed during the quarantine period but people could still buy books from online bookstores, thanks to China`s highly-developed online shopping. The packages were delivered to designated spots near residential areas for pick-up. Delivery was not as fast as before the COVID-19, but it was never suspended. Besides, online reading activities organized by various publishing houses have attracted a large number of readers, E-books for Covid-19 prevention and control have been published and made available to households through the internet.
3. How are your members coping with the current situation?
Our members have taken the following measures during this special period. Firstly, PAC members have published and promoted over 100 books and articles on how to prevent and control COVID-19 in printed and digital formats. Specifically, we have licensed or co-published over 40 titles on COVID-19 prevention and control to more than 29 countries and regions in 27 languages, involving over 120 types of rights. These books communicate to the world about China’s anti-pandemic programs and experience, methods and measures. Among the titles, The Coronavirus Prevention Handbook, a reader about China's scientific methods for preventing COVID-19, has been licensed to 24 countries and regions in 20 languages. Secondly, our members of both traditional and digital publishing enterprises opened their digital resources to the public. According to statistics, hundreds of thousands of e-books and audio books were provided for free during the pandemic. Thirdly, in response to the decline in sales, many of our members have switched from offline to online promotion, such as live streaming on various platforms, organized online reading activities, etc., to attract readers and enhance community cohesion, as well as seeking cooperation and developing online distribution.
4. What have publishers done locally to support society during the lockdown?
Quite a number of traditional and digital publishers in China opened up their resources for the public. For example, China Publishing Group introduced an APP named “go listening”, which could be downloaded from different mobile APP stores. Users only needed to register in the APP to listen to all the resources, including Chinese and foreign masterpieces, children`s books, etc., all for free.
People's Literature Publishing House launched an activity to support reading. Readers could get a voucher for free, with which they could exchange for all the house’s audio books for a month.
Top textbook publishers like People’s Education Press, Higher Education Press, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press all opened up their e-textbook and subsidiary resources to students. Digital publishers like Dangdangyun Reading, Yuewen Group, iReader also launched numerous free reading programs, in response to the country’s appeal. As far as I know, many foreign readers also benefited from these free materials. Moreover, quite a number of publishing enterprises and individuals have made donations including necessities and books to Hubei Province and Wuhan City, and have actively participated in volunteer services.
5. Will the pandemic have an effect on the Beijing International Book Fair?
According to what I’m informed, the organizer of Beijing International Book Fair, China National Publications Import & Export (Group) Corporation, is still preparing for the fair. In my personal view, the entire international community’s health situation by then is the key issue that will affect the fair taking place or not and in which form.
6. What will be the medium to long-term impact?
As a publisher, I’d like to focus on the medium to long-term impact on the industry. The attack of COVID-19 is temporary but the influence may last for a period of time. Take our physical bookstores as an example. COVID-19 has already damaged their sales in the first quarter of 2020. However, as the second quarter is always a period of slack sales and people’s psychological recovery might take several months, the sales over half of the year are likely to be dismal. The damage is not limited to bookstores. Related industries like printing and delivery will also be mauled. Time is not the only help. We need new thinking and cooperation with other industries to re-invigorate publishing. The bright side is, the Chinese government attaches great importance to the development of the publishing industry. Enterprises have also initiated self-help efforts to recover from the pandemic as soon as possible. Besides, as the pandemic have compelled people to spend more time at home, they are likely to develop different reading attitudes and habits. Digital publishing may embrace rapid growth due to its distinguishing features, such as the instant dissemination of digital content, and convenient and efficient acquisition of digital content, etc.
The challenges and damages caused by COVID-19 cannot be ignored. Meanwhile, I think it has also brought about an opportunity to reacquaint and enhance our industry.
7. What strategies do you have in mind for the recovery phase, to kickstart the market again?
According to the analysis on the book retail market in the first quarter of 2020 released by OpenBook, retail sales decreased by 15.93% over the same quarter of 2019, online channels increased by 3.02%, and physical bookstores dropped by 54.79%. Besides, as shopping in bookstores is regarded gathering indoors which can pose a health risk, they need more time to recover. What we should do is to develop more online shopping channels, to make up for the loss of physical bookstores.
For educational purposes, students still need to take online classes so the sales of textbooks and supplementary materials have not be affected too much. They actually increased over the same quarter of 2019. What we need to focus on is trade books, as people have been spending less on these books due to various reasons. We need to emphasize more than ever the importance of reading. For this purpose, both PAC and the Copyright Society of China have organized numerous online activities. For example, we have posted IPA’s joint statement on reading on PAC’s website, and invited celebrities to talk about the importance of reading.
Publishing of new titles also faces great challenges mainly because of limited printing and delivering capacities. Eliminating COVID-19 is the most straight-forward method to turn things around, but before its end online activities such as promotion, advance sales should be prioritized.