25 Oct 2021

Nicola Legat on Covid-19's effect on publishing

From Labour Day, 8:20 am on 25 October 2021

The lockdown in August and the lockdown dragging on in Auckland has seen people turn to books for an escape. 

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Photo: Unsplash / Jessica Ruscello

That is despite bookshops not being permitted to sell books at all during level 4, and only being able to post them out to online buyers in level 3. 

At level 4 books were not considered essential items unless they were "educational".

Auckland-based Nicola Legat is currently a publisher at Massey University Press, but she has also worked as a publisher at Random House, a journalist and as editor of Metro magazine.

She said books are a solace when people are leading such isolated lives.

"There's only so much screen time that we can stand," she said, with many people being forced online for both work and social contact during levels 3 and 4.

"There's very good physiological evidence for what happens when you read, your brain is working in a completely different way, you are paying close attention and the various parts of your brain are just functioning together in a way that they don't when you're on screen."

Legat said books are both psychologically and physiologically critical.

The evidence and the anecdotes point to the fact that people have wanted books during New Zealand's lockdowns, she said.

"Certainly bookshops have found that the moment they could open again, even at level 3 with click and collect and online, you know sales rocket up because people are just desperate to get their hands on the new ones, because new ones are you know coming into the market all through that period."

Legat said during the last lockdown there was also anecdotal evidence that people who had not read a book in years were doing so.

"I think that actually explains why book sales have remained quite strong cause people took up reading again, realised how much they enjoyed it and have stuck with it."

She said in some ways lockdown helped literature "in attracting people back to what is actually an old medium, but one that I think will always endure".

Books should be 'essential items', Legat says

After the first lockdown which left booksellers in the lurch when books were not listed as essential items, they made submissions, particularly to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) which controls what is considered essential items under the alert level system, Legat said.

"We felt very reassured that that would never happen again, so we were very caught by surprise when books weren't listed as an essential in the level 4 that we've just had."

Legat said New Zealand is the only country in the English speaking world to forbid the sale of books to consumers under Covid restrictions.

"It was not permissible [at the start of level 4] for a bookshop owner to go into their shop and fulfil online orders, that was just absolutely verboten, you could not go into your place of business."

She said after a couple of weeks MBIE changed the requirements to say retailers could supply educational books, but there was confusion around this. Also the distributors were closed and it was impossible to get new books at this time, she said.

Distribution issues

Legat said Covid-19 has also caused freight issues for all publishers, particularly multinationals such as Penguin and Random House.

"They all have their distribution sheds in Australia and of course last year after planes stopped flying in, because they used to air freight their freight in, once business was up and going again at level 3 they had to resort to shipping."

But she said fewer boats and port congestion has led to tremendous disruption in supply chains making it difficult for publishers to get their new releases into the New Zealand market.

The university and Te Papa publishers feel very fortunate that their stock is held in a New Zealand warehouse and so they are able to avoid some of those distribution issues, she said.

Legat said with books unavailable at level 4 and not freely available in shops at level 3 people are more likely to turn to Amazon and the Book Depository to order them.

"I feel that Amazon and the Book Depository are not the friends of the New Zealand book eco-system, they take trade from our bookshops, we need bookshops."

Legat said even those two huge companies struggled to get books into New Zealand due to supply chain issues.

"But it is always a great pity when people cannot buy local, if you're buying a book from Book Depository, it's coming from Australia, it might even be coming from the UK, it's got massive air miles for a start and it's just robbing your local bookshop of a bit of business."