Balancing books during Covid | Sunday Observer

Balancing books during Covid

3 October, 2021

Among the many industries affected by the Covid pandemic, the book publishing sector rank among the top. Being confined to homes intermittently for the past one and a half years has greatly affected reading habits among children and adults. Visits to libraries and bookshops had to stop due to travel restrictions.

In the recent past, news surfaced of children becoming severely addicted to online gaming drawing concern among many including healthcare professionals.

The increased use of the internet by children during the recent past has resulted in the deterioration of values and traditional ways of acquiring knowledge and information. Children have increasingly become victim to child abuse and an easy target to sexual predictors due to their increased online presence. Therefore, redirecting children in the correct path by inculcating values and habits has become imperative.

Reading month

September was rather a quiet month compared to the previous years when literature was celebrated in its full glory. This time, the month dedicated to reading passed without a whimper as the usual book fair which drew thousands to the BMICH was cancelled due to growing number of Covid cases. September was one of the hardest months for avid readers with the cancellation of the book fair and being unable to visit bookshops or a library due to the lockdown. Even before the lockdown, parents were reluctant to risk taking their children out of the house to go to a library or bookstore in public transportation.

“Covid-19 is a global crisis and all aspects of life have been affected including our book publishing industry. The main problem we faced was the closure of bookstores during the lockdowns, and people being unable to come to stores due to transport issues even when lockdowns were lifted,” said Prem Dissanayake Managing Director of Fast Publishers.

For about one and a half months, bookshops around the country had to be closed and publishers faced a major setback, and this too being in the month dedicated to reading.

“We managed to grow our online market within the last year and this is a good alternative to the present situation. But it is nothing like going to a bookstore and browsing through books and buying after careful perusal. People are unable to flip through the pages and decide whether they like a book or not. They have to order a book without knowing much about it. Although online sales have grown, the trade is still severely affected,” Dissanayake added.

Stores open

As a solution to get the industry back on its feet, Sri Lanka Book Publishers’ Association made a request to the Department of Government Information to grant permission for publishers to keep their stores open during the lockdown. Heeding to this request, the Director General of Health Services granted permission last week to open bookstores which was indeed good news to the publishers. However, challenges remain to bring the industry back to the present status.

“It is true that many publishers, especially the top few in the country, are fully operating online in the sale and distribution of books. However, our online systems are still at a primary level compared to the international level where ebooks are widely available,” said Sri Lanka Book Publishers’ Association Secretary Samantha Indeewara Samarasinghe.

“Also, people are not used to the online platform yet. And online orders are catching up only in urban areas. People in rural areas do not have access to the online platform. This is why we made a request to open bookstores around the country so that rural children too can buy their textbooks and supplementary material,” he said.

Sarasavi Publishers Managing Director H. D. Premasiri had similar ideas regarding the online platform. He said although the online platform became popular especially during the lockdown period, this is not practical for the rural sector. However, there was a sale of about 200 books a day during the past two months as the international schools started a new term and that opening stores is a huge blessing for parents. Yet, the industry still faces problems due to the pandemic.

“We are unable to purchase books from overseas as the bank says it’s unable to send money overseas. We cannot make payments to UK from where we purchase a lot of books. Since we have built trust with UK publishers, we have so far received books on credit directly from them. But we have a difficulty making payments,” said Premasiri.

He added that the cancelling of the international book fair was a major setback especially to small scale publishers. Publishers also face problems as paper is scarce due to the lack of production.

As the saying goes, ‘Reading maketh a full man,’ but a gamut of problems arise in the absence of a full man.

Absence of reading

“Especially during the lockdowns, children and youth had to be confined to their homes creating bigger problems. It is a widely known fact that the Covid pandemic has resulted in mental problems among children and adults. Lifestyles have changed and people are under a lot of stress as a result. A good book has the power to heal an ailing mind. Mental stress is invisible unlike a physical illness where you can go to a hospital or pharmacy for treatment. So, invisible ailments need attention too,” said Publisher Dissanayake.

“If reading habits keep fading, it would soon become a social problem. Those confined to their homes would look for other means of entertainment which could be harmful to society. Anti-social activities may rise. The ability for future generations to develop a rich literary sense could be hindered. They would go to the internet for entertainment and become caught up with cheap and harmful trends,” Dissanayake added.

Even after vaccination, Covid is still a reality we have to live with. Therefore, better solutions using technology are needed to save the industry which would be a huge step towards caring for the future generation.