If it seemed, for a while, that online print sales could sustain publishers and booksellers through the pandemic crisis, it now looks increasingly like the UK will follow the path of Italy and Spain where print distribution is at a virtual standstill.
Here’s the thing: it may well be convenient and safe for consumers to sit at home and order their next print book without having to get off the sofa, but that order has to be processed at a warehouse, packed for shipping, and then it has to work its way through the delivery system to the customer’s door.
At every stage there needs to be someone risking infection with the coronavirus for that delivery to happen, and increasingly, where such actions are not yet barred, workers are reluctant to put themselves on the line.
In the UK the book wholesaler Gardners which also operates the indie bookstore website Hive, at first tried to carry on as the UK entered lockdown. No longer.
A statement on the Gardners website states:
It is with great sadness that we have taken the difficult decision to temporarily suspend taking new orders for physical product at Gardners due to the current Corona Virus Pandemic, however our digital services will be unaffected. We will be working hard to clear all outstanding orders over the coming days, so any existing orders should be processed.
We have continued over the past few weeks providing our usual high quality service to the Book and Entertainment trades around the world, however this is becoming increasingly more difficult as this crisis develops. The safety and well-being of our amazing workforce is the primary reason for making this decision.
We will be looking to see what key services we can turn back on as soon as possible, and will be updating all our customers and suppliers on regular basis as to the progress we are making.
Waterstones, for now, believes it can continue its warehouse operations, but admits on its website that things will be slower than usual
How long the UK government will allow loopholes like this to continue, always assuming the workers continue to turn out, is unclear, but it’s unlikely to be long
With all the Waterstones stores closed for business across the country the warehousing operation is the company’s only income generator right now, and no question that will welcomed by consumers wanting more books during the lockdown.
But James Daunt must be regretting shutting down the Waterstones ebook site, which might otherwise now be a vital survival lifeline for the company.
While Gardners have suspended the warehouse operation their digital books sector continues unaffected.
Waterstone’s CEO Daunt is also in charge of the USA’s Barnes & Noble operation, and right now he will no doubt be seeing B&N’s ebook arm Nook in a new light, as a safety net in times of print peril.