Books Survive Every Crisis

By Friederike Neubert and Marie-Charlotte Praetorius

Closed bookstores, cancelled readings and new needs and interests on the side of the readers – We talked to Julian Nebel, press spokesman for the publishing group Münchner Verlagsgruppe GmbH (mvg), about the effects of the Corona crisis on the book industry.

Due to the Corona lockdown, many bookstores had to close for weeks and some publishers postponed the release of new titles until the second half of the year. Many people have also changed their consumer behaviour. How did you perceive this as a publishing house?

Julian Nebel: In our case things have not changed that much, since our focus is less on fiction. I think it has rather hit those publishing houses that sell a lot through small and medium-sized bookstores. Especially fiction or non-fiction books on topics like philosophy or society are being sold in small bookstores – it is of course quite hard if they are closed. These kinds of books are also promoted at events and lectures. If all that doesn’t take place it makes sense to postpone the release dates.

We mainly publish non-fiction books on topics such as cooking, fitness or finance. Events are not that important for us. We usually sell a lot through online retailers such as Amazon, and through online shops such as Hugendubel or Thalia. The Corona crisis didn't hit us as hard as other publishing houses, but we still see it in our turnover figures.

Julian Nebel, press spokesman for the publishing group Münchner Verlagsgruppe GmbH (mvg), Photo: mvg

Which genres and topics have been particularly popular in the last weeks?

Nebel: We clearly see that three topics have been particularly popular in recent weeks. First, people are increasingly buying books about home workout and fitness without equipment. "Convict Conditioning" by Paul Wade, for example, has been in huge demand. Second, everything that deals with mindfulness is very much in vogue right now. People are wondering how they can make good use of their free time and get rid of their everyday troubles. Third, everything that has to do with home schooling and school in general. An unexpected success is the book "Die geheimen Tricks der 1,0er-Schüler" (The secret tricks of the top students) by Tim Nießner, an 18-year-old future graduate. Business and Career Guides are surprisingly not successful at all at the moment.

What about books on economy, regarding the impact of the Corona crisis on the economy and the financial market?

Nebel: Books on economy are selling very well at the moment – especially those for average consumers and average investors. Many people seem to ask themselves how to spend their money now. The sales figures of the books on the stock market that are aimed at beginners reflect this trend.

Many people say that digitization and digital offers have seen a clear upturn through the Corona crisis. How have you experienced the trend in the last weeks?

Nebel: We are noticing a very strong boom in audio books of all genres – from business and fiction to self-help literature. Audio books by influencers are particularly successful. The book by MontanaBlack, a well-known YouTuber and Twitcher, for example, is the most streamed audio book on Spotify. Although the sales figures of audio books have been growing continuously for the past two or three years, the demand has particularly risen in the last two months.

The sales figures of ebooks however have increased less than expected. There is probably a stable group of readers that prefers to read an analog book that they can hold in their hands.

In the last weeks entire German companies had to work from home. What were the biggest challenges and lessons for the mvg as a company?

Nebel: We had to deal with the fact that a lot of work is still done on paper with signatures. At the beginning this was quite difficult. Apart from the initial difficulties, the transition to an entirely digital workflow has gone quite well. The second challenge was the fact that every coworker had to have the necessary technical equipment at home. Fortunately, we had already laid the foundations for this last year. In this respect, the transition went quite quickly. Everyday life in the office has definitely been boosted through digitization. In many cases a personal meeting or a business trip is not necessary anymore. I believe that this is definitely an interesting lesson we have learned.

Will you go back to the “old model” after Corona?

Nebel: I firmly believe that we will not take the step back. We have seen that the telework model works out quite well, we are still able to vote and books continue to be published. Everything we have to do as a publishing house – author research, contracts, editing, printing – also works without being on site and therefore there is no reason to take a step back. The question of how we will work in the future depends on the different types of person – there are people that prefer to work from home because they are more concentrated like that. Others prefer to come to the office because they need to exchange with other people. In fact, we want to have a situation where everyone can choose their workplace. We also think of a more flexible time schedule. Of course everyone should be available when we vote, but choosing the workplace also means opening up the working hours. We would be reluctant to turn back the page.

Many industries see the Corona crisis as a transformation accelerator. Which planned changes in your company were accelerated by the effects of the pandemic?

Nebel: Corona was indeed an accelerator for us. We have introduced the home office last year and were very cautious at the beginning because we usually work on-site. Without Corona this project would not have been developed that quick.

In your opinion, what impact does Corona have on the publishing industry in the long term?

Nebel: The book is still a highly demanded product, this reassures us. We also see that many digital products that are related to the book, like audio books or additional online classes, are very successful now and probably even more in the future. People often ask how long the printed book will continue to exist. I think – even after the umpteenth crisis – it will probably exist forever.