Philippine bookshops rush online as coronavirus pandemic boosts sales

By Michelle Anne P. Soliman, Reporter

BEVERLY WICO SIY, 42, failed to publish a book on Filipino idioms in 2020 amid a coronavirus pandemic.

Like most sectors, the publishing industry had to adjust to countrywide lockdowns, forcing them to shift processes online.

“I also had Filipino poems that I wanted illustrated but that too didn’t happen,” Ms. Siy, who manages a publishing house, said via Zoom.

Canceled book fairs and industry events, nationwide lockdowns and global supply chain issues hit both the local and international publishing industry, forcing some of them to shift online.

Bookshops, publishers and printing presses were shuttered despite soaring book sales, while governments have largely neglected the publishing and creative sectors by failing to provide financial support, according to the International Publishers Association (IPA).

“While the long-term impacts of the pandemic are still unknowable, there is a real risk that many companies may not survive to see the consequences,” it said in a 2020 report. “Those that do will have to adapt to accelerating digitization trends that may outlive the pandemic and fundamentally transform our industry.”

In the Philippines, registered book sales jumped by 72% to P3.35 billion at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 from a year earlier, according to the National Book Development Board (NBDB). Sales further increased to 3.74 billion last year.

The Department of Education (DepEd) was the biggest institutional customer, having bought P1.86 billion worth of textbooks and instructional materials in 2020, it said in a report.

Registration automation and streamlining, online sales and digitalization, a more efficient distribution network, subsidies and grants also led to the revenue jump, NBDB Executive Director Charisse Aquino-Tugade said in an e-mail.

During the pandemic, the Educational Publishers Association partnered with the Book Development Association of the Philippines and online marketplaces Shopee and Lazada to host Aklatan, the biggest book fair in the country. Twenty-six participating publishers sold 28,000 books, generating $120,000 in revenue, the IPA said.

Ms. Tugade cited the wide gap between imported and exported books in the Philippines at 24:1 in favor of the former. “The pandemic has basically almost devastated the industry,” she separately said in a Zoom interview. “A lot of the procurement and institutional buying in the Philippines is through the DepEd.”

The book publishing industry contributed P4.74 billion to the Philippine economy in 2019, or less than 1% of economic output.

In 2020, the local publishing industry recorded 6,500 registrations for new book titles, compared with 6,666 in 2019 and 7,474 in 2018. Book registrations started increasing again last year to 9,497, Ms. Tugade said. During the pandemic, self-published authors also rose, she added.

ONLINE SHIFTThe pandemic has forced some publishers to embrace digitization, and it has paid off.

Local book publisher Bookshelf PH started operating in early 2020, just before most areas in the Philippines were locked down to contain the coronavirus.

“The pandemic and new normal shifted more of our processes online,” Monette Quiogue, head of operations at Bookshelf PH, said in an e-mail. “Instead of conducting face-to-face interviews with subjects and resource persons, we instead switched to remote interviewing. In addition to physical books, we also focused increasingly on distributing e-books and audiobooks.”

“Because we target a specific niche — Filipino nonfiction books telling very Filipino stories — we felt we were able to provide content that people were looking for,” she added.

The company has published books on the success stories of Filipinas, a history of blockchain in the Philippines and online business development. It has published more than 50 titles of physical books, e-books and audiobooks.

“We will continue to develop titles that feature the talent, knowledge and skills of Filipinos in various fields and show how they can educate and inspire readers,” Ms. Quiogue said. “That has been our objective from the start and we will continue to do so.”

Another publisher that managed to thrive online during the lockdown was comics publisher Komiket. Launched in 2015, it started as an affordable comics art market for first-time comics creators, artists and readers. A year later, it registered as a nonprofit group with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In 2019, Komiket built its Secret HQ bookstore in Poblacion, Makati before  selling Filipino comics nationwide. During the pandemic, it continued to publish original comics and graphic novels in English. The company also started an international comics festival online.

“We saw that as an opportunity,” Komiket President and Co-Founder Paolo Alessandro Herras said in an interview. “As the community grew, we needed to increase our readership. We put up the Philippine International Comics Festival, and we became more active as a publisher.”

Komiket shortlists comic pitches annually to develop, publish and distribute these in its bookstore. “It gave us time to pause and focus on what we really wanted to do as an organization,” Mr. Herras said.

Komiket has published five titles including Tarantadong Kalbo Vol. 1 featuring comics by artist Kevin Eric Raymundo, which was released in 2020.

“If you look at their cultural behavior, Filipinos don’t want to pay for anything digital or online,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that going online is useless. It has its use in terms of promotion and building your audience.”

“If the readers love the work, they will buy the book. That’s a path that works for some, but not for all. There are many ways to build your creators’ path,” he added.

As part of its pandemic recovery plan, the NBDB streamlined its registration by allowing applicants to submit documents online. There were 1,989 registrants — 359 companies and 1,630 people — last year, compared with 513 in 2020 and 690 in 2019. Registration allows the agency to track sales and the performance of publishers, authors and graphic designers, Ms. Tugade said.

The agency has a P100-million budget this year, which she said is not enough. “We need P400 million next year to help the industry survive.”

Aside from supporting the millions of authors, illustrators, printers, distributors and booksellers globally, publishing has also helped educate people, spread scientific research especially during the pandemic and open new worlds millions of people.

But the coronavirus has exposed vulnerabilities in the sector, the IPA said. “With disruptions at every link in the supply chain, fixed routes to market and sudden lockdowns have left countless books collecting dust in warehouses, bookshops and libraries.”

Some publishers failed to shift online, which left them sinking when the pandemic shut off all sales channels except e-commerce.

“For publishers of all sizes, this crisis has been a brusque wake-up call to the need to find new, innovative routes to market and adopt diversified, durable business models,” it said. “Now is the time to benefit from the cohesion built in adversity to craft a recovery strategy that enables the global publishing industry to rally stronger, more resilient and more adaptable.”

Ms. Siy, the author and publisher, finished an unplanned project online during the pandemic. In April 2020, she joined an online writing contest on Filipino flash fiction, where one of her 39 entries won.

Later that year, she added 11 Filipino flash fiction stories and tapped senior high school multimedia art students at iACADEMY for the illustrations. The book titled COVIDagli was published by Balangay Books last year.

“Some projects didn’t materialize, but there were also pleasant surprises,” she said.