How do you begin to write about 2020?
I used to do an annual “looking back…” blog post every year, but rather got out of the habit. The last one was in January 2018. To resume now, given the challenges of summarising a year dominated by COVID, but with powerful and important issues like the Black Lives Matters movement and the challenges of climate change and, through the last months of the year and at the beginning of the year, the impact of Brexit and challenges to Western democracy, feels like folly, and to concentrate on what’s happened commercially and in other ways to one small children’s book business seems oddly blinkered, but here goes…
Nosy Crow ended the year with higher sales than we achieved in 2019. We sold over £22 million pounds worth of books, up 24% on our previous year. We published 77 new, original titles in the year – down from the previous year’s 119 and down compared to this year’s projected 119, too. We didn’t publish any books at all in May and June (UK bookshops reopened on June 15 2020) and we moved most of those titles into 2021 rather than pushing them later in the year: a book about a pirate feels quite… summery, and not right for, say, November publication. We were grateful to all of our authors and illustrators and their agents who were so understanding in the face of uncertainty and change around our publishing programme. Inevitably, in common, we know, with many of other children’s publishers, we were more reliant than ever on our backlist – 70% of our sales last year were backlist sales.
A bigger proportion of our sales than ever came from outside the UK, with significant growth in co-editions, export and rights sales. The groundwork for many of those sales was actually done in 2019, a year in which the sales and rights teams travelled extensively… while the situation as we look ahead to 2021 is different, as we haven’t had the book fairs and trips to build our relationships and show new books. However, we have found new ways of presenting our books using video call platforms and digital marketing material that we have been told by our customers abroad is cutting edge. We are very proud of it, certainly. But nothing is as informative – or enjoyable – as sitting opposite a buyer and watching their face as they respond to a physical book, or a proof or a dummy in front of them, and as soon as it’s safe to return to bookfairs and visit our customers, we will be first in the queue.
So our international sales growth was particularly outstanding, but we are so pleased and proud that our 2020 UK sales ended up ahead of 2019. We are now the 11th biggest children’s publisher in the UK based on sales to UK consumers. In the middle of last year, we set up our small but excellent field sales force, so now all of Nosy Crow’s sales are managed in house. Ruth Tinham, based on the south coast, joined us as field sales manager, and she’s supported by Alice Corrigan, based in Preston. Ruth focuses on the south of the UK, and Alice on the north. They are selling to independent bookshops and the wholesalers who supply them and supply schools and libraries. We’ve always been in touch with independent bookshops, but our increased direct exposure to them in the course of this difficult year has only increased our admiration for their hard work and resilience and our determination to support them however we can. We’ve watched bookshops, from big chains to tiny single-room traders, develop new online and other strategies for connecting with their customers and communities. Meanwhile, our sales through supermarkets and existing online-only retailers were strong, and we’re supportive of all the ways that carers and teachers have been able to get books into the hands of children.
And, of course, getting books into the hands of children has never been so important. When children can’t go to school, accessing books is key. While we need to sell books to keep in business, we have also been as generous as possible in allowing public bodies – schools, libraries, hospitals – to have access to our books and to use them widely and freely. Nur Ben Hamida ([email protected]), our contracts manager, has been inundated with requests, and we are so grateful to the generosity of our authors and agents in enabling us to ensure that children can read and listen to books even when libraries and school libraries haven’t been able to give them the access they normally can. We are continuing our support of public bodies by giving them free access to our material through the early part of this year, at least until schools reopen, but it’s important to protect our rights and the rights of our authors and illustrators that we do grant permission for use properly, so Nur is the person to go to if there’s anything you’d like to share.
We are proud that we made one book in direct response to the pandemic. Coronavirus: A Book about Covid-19 for Children is an ebook and a print book that won the FutureBook Best of Lockdown Book of the year. It also won a Digital Book World Award Outstanding Achievement Award For COVID-19 Response. We published this free digital book for children on April 6 2020 under a creative commons licence – a first, we think, for trade publishing. It’s been viewed/downloaded 1.5m times via the Nosy Crow website alone, but the English-language version is hosted on many other sites. It’s been translated into 63 languages, including 3 different sign languages: our one stipulation when we provided the files was that the ebook be distributed free. It was updated – with new information and illustrations to reflect changes in understanding and regulations – on 23 July, when Nosy Crow also published a not-for-profit £1.99 print version, which has raised £30,000 for NHS Charities Together. Actor Hugh Bonneville narrated the audiobook of the first edition of the book. The book was universally acclaimed and our scientific consultant, Professor Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tweeted: “TFW you spend a few hours discussing draft manuscripts and it turns out to be, perhaps, the most significant thing you ever did. Thank you @NosyCrow for giving me the opportunity to contribute.”
We won prizes in 2020, and I can’t tell you how much of a boost to our morale that was. We were named Independent Publisher of the Year at the British Book Awards, where we also won an Export award. At the Independent Publisher’s Guild Awards, we won the Children’s Publisher of the Year award for the fifth time since 2012, and won the International Achievement award for the fourth time. Keeping up our collective spirits in pandemic times has been a challenge, it must be acknowledged. We are, I think, a particularly collaborative business, and this, combined with our manageable scale (54 people now) and the lay-out of our single-floor open plan office means that it’s very easy to stay informed about what’s happening even in areas of the business that don’t involve you. Moving our whole business to remote working has been hard. We started by having all-company meetings every evening in the first lockdown, but have now moved to twice-weekly short meetings where we share things that (we hope!) are of interest to all of us. We even managed a Zoom Christmas party. We didn’t furlough anyone, and we didn’t make anyone redundant. I am more proud than I can say of the adaptability, goodwill, good sense and sheer mental sturdiness of the Nosy Crow team as we work scattered across the country and sometimes beyond. But I have to say that we have found that making books means touching books, and working closely with colleagues, and as soon as it’s safe, we’ll be back in the office, which at the moment is open only for people who really can’t work from home.
Despite our commercial success in 2020, it’s not a year we would ever want to repeat. We begin 2021 in lockdown, but with a sense of resignation rather than the shock that accompanied the first lock-down. We begin the year out of the European Union, about which we feel abiding sadness, but without, so far, any real disruption to the way we do business. And there is the prospect of vaccination for many of us over the next few months and for our colleagues abroad. Books, we know now if we ever doubted it, matter more than ever, particularly to children, and we are proud to make and sell good ones. So we look ahead with hope, and with gratitude that we survived and even found some ways to thrive with a little help from our friends – our colleagues, our authors, our illustrators, their agents, librarians, retailers at home and elsewhere, and our sister publishers in the international community. Thank you.