Week 34/20 – week ending 21 August

Lockdown: three quarters prefer working from home

With publishers beginning to reopen their offices, and many more planning a return to work in September, what do staff feel about returning to the office, and how have they been coping with working from home? Over 100 people took our online survey, of whom 95% would normally be working in an office, mostly based in London. A very small number (3%) said they had been going into the office most of the time since lockdown started, while a further one in 10 had gone back into the office since lockdown eased. About 16% had gone in a few times to check on things, and two-thirds had not gone into the office since late March.

Working from home has, it appears, been reasonably successful for many in the book industry. Nearly three-quarters of respondents who usually worked in an office (73%) said that they preferred working from home, with only 16% saying they would prefer to work from the office, while 10% didn’t have a preference.

The biggest benefit of going back to the office is seeing colleagues again and being able to communicate more easily with others in the organisation, while the more professional working environment is important too. Other pros include the serendipity/inspiration of “real” interactions with colleagues; getting out of the house; having a split between “home” and “work”; and the provision of equipment and resources (particularly books).

The major drawback for staff is the cost of commuting and the time spent doing, it as well as, for some, concern about the risks of travelling on public transport. Many are also concerned about returning to an office where desks may have been shared and ventilation can be a problem, and worry about keeping up to date with the numerous new safety procedures that will have to be followed. There is a question mark too over how productive it will really be if not everyone can be in the office at the same time, with people having to work both virtually and in person across teams.

Respondents cited both benefits and drawbacks to returning to the office:

“Pros: colleagues/inspiration/speeding up the process. Cons: public transport – but most of us will have a blended week which is great.”

“Pros: seeing colleagues, some aspects of the job will be easier, divide between work and home, easier to collaborate creatively. Cons: expensive and lengthy commute, virus risk, loss of better work/life balance.”

“Pros: reconnecting with people; working from home for a protracted period has affected my mental health. Cons: not all colleagues are likely to go back so the productivity of teams split between home and office may be reduced.”

A few, however, were all for returning to work:

“It’s ok to keep things moving along from home but for things like changing systems etc it is difficult.”

“No children or home-schooling responsibilities in the office! Wonderful canteen where someone decides what to serve for lunch. Husband not giving me chores whilst working! No cons at all.”

Working from home has clearly been a benefit for many. In addition to the cost/time savings on commuting mentioned by nearly everyone, many pointed to an improved life/work balance and the ability to be more productive with less travelling and greater flexibility about when to work. Some just feel safer at home: the threat from Covid is by no means over. Many, however, say that the benefits of not going to the office are offset by missing their co-workers (though for some WFH helps them avoid office conflict and difficult workmates), and the feeling that it is harder to connect virtually with those who are not close colleagues.

“Pros: I save a lot of money (from travel and lunches) [and] because of the lack of commute I have longer days to get things done/relax. My day is more flexible and it makes working life more manageable, there isn’t the rushing, stress of central London. I feel safer at home.”

“Pros: flexibility to work from different locations, no time wasted commuting so earlier start and finish, no commuting cost or buying coffee, lunch etc, using phone more instead of just emailing (open plan office tends to reduce phone interactions). Cons: sameness of every day, Zoom calls instead of face to face meetings.”Pros: no commuting, able to save money without buying lunches/travel costs etc, better work/life balance, better for mental health, more time with partner, able to work better and more effectively without constant meetings/interruptions.”

Nearly two-thirds felt that they were being more productive working from home, with only 10% saying they were less productive, and a quarter unsure either way. And it may well be true that people have been working harder from home: a recent large-scale study of more than 3 million workers in the US by the National Bureau for Economic Research found that the number of meetings during the Covid crisis had gone up nearly 13% per person, and the numbers attending each meeting had increased by 13.5%.

Of the 100 people who responded to this survey, about two-thirds worked for a publishing house, 12% were literary agents/scouts, while others worked for retailers, book trade service companies, trade organisations or distributors. A third of respondents worked for companies of 250 employees or more, with a further 18% working for companies that employed fewer than 10 people.

Independent bookshops back on their feet after lockdown

The majority of independent bookshops have reopened their doors after closing during lockdown, and for many of them business has been good. Here, seven independent bookshops across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland reveal how they’re going digital, how customers are reacting to mandatory face coverings, and their plans for the mass book release on 3 September.

Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere has reopened after spending time focusing on its online business. Owner Elaine Nelson has restricted opening hours so there is time to process online orders and so that “staff are not subjected to long days at the ‘coalface'”. Customer numbers are limited to two people from the same family at any one time. While these measures have led to lower takings, the store is doing well for pre-orders for forthcoming September and October titles, particularly English Pastoral by James Rebanks, which is out on 3 September. Although Nelson said that “working in the shop is stressful and exhausting with all the extra rules in place”, she added that “it’s slightly easier now that masks are obligatory and most people are accepting of that”. She is planning to tackle this autumn’s influx of new titles that were delayed by Covid-19 by being “extra-selective” and waiting to see which ones take off.

Lighthouse Books in Edinburgh has found that masks have been a “non-issue” – owner Mairi Oliver said that “our readers have been so understanding and considerate to us and each other, they wear them without resistance”. Because of the Edinburgh Fringe, August is usually busier than Christmas for the store, which holds a month-long Book Fringe with daily author events, attracting a flood of visitors who have come to Edinburgh for the festivals. Oliver said: “This year sales are more comparable to a decent February. That’s tough – not just because of the sales hit, but because we’re missing the buzz and human connection of the Fringe.” But she is looking forward to the new books coming out in September, saying: “It’s a bit daunting but we’re actually really excited! We usually only carry one or two copies of a new hardback – especially fiction – but we’ve found our online shop has much better uptake which means we have an additional audience to reach with those titles! It’s likely many otherwise brilliant books will fall through the publicity cracks, but we’re looking forward to using our new virtual bookshop toolkit – social media/newsletter/webshop – to curate a list from the flood of publications that will most speak to our readers. We’ve also added a snazzy ‘pre-order’ page to our website and invited our followers to request those books they are looking forward to, and that’s flagged a few things to us that we’d missed!”

Mel Griffin of Griffin Books in Penarth said that although the local community had been “hugely supportive” over the last few months, the summer holiday period was very different from usual: “Penarth is a seaside town and at this time of year the town would normally be busy with tourists as well as local residents. It is noticeably much quieter on the high street, and this is obviously reflected in footfall in the shop. Thankfully we have seen an increase in people using our click and collect and home delivery services available through our online shop (www.griffinbooksonline.co.uk).” Although wearing masks is not mandatory in Wales, some customers are choosing to wear them, as are customer-facing staff members. The store has also introduced safety and social distancing measures including shorter opening times, limiting the number of people in the shop at any one time, and asking customers to sanitise their hands before handling stock.

Griffin Books has become known for its online events during lockdown, with 18 Meet The Author Zoom events, 35 live Storytime sessions and 12 virtual book clubs. Although the store has taken a break during August, more events have been booked in for September: Ruth Jones is discussing her new novel Us Three on 4 September, followed by former First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones on 10 September, Joanne Harris on 14 September, and Andrew Wilson on 23 September. Online author events and Storytime sessions will take place throughout the autumn, with further names tba. Griffin said: “The online events have been a great way of keeping in touch with customers but also keeping that contact with authors and publishers which we love.”

She is also excited about the September releases, saying: “I can’t wait for all of the new September titles to arrive – though I am a bit nervous about the number of deliveries we’re expecting and the unpacking! I’ll have to think creatively about how and where to display them all, as we’re quite a small shop.” Recent successes at Griffin Books include Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. Griffin also observes that customers are buying feel-good books such as The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary and The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy.

Ken Thatcher, owner of Foyle Books in Londonderry, said that so far customers were happy to wear masks: “I have had only one reluctant wearer, and he is a regular – his objections stem more from vanity rather than anything scientific.” Tourists are starting to return to the area, including a number of “staycationers” who came north to the area from the Republic of Ireland during a bank holiday weekend. Thatcher said: “We had one returning customer whom I hadn’t seen for about six years who used to spend a day in the shop when he came. This time he only stayed for half a day but we were still delighted to see him. In general staycationers seem more likely to buy books than those from abroad which is an unexpected bonus. Tourists who come by plane seem to have a phobia about the weight of books.” Titles selling well include Tennis Lessons by local author Susannah Dickey – one of Thatcher’s former students. Internet sales are continuing to prosper, although Thatcher pointed out that due to the closing of Easons across Northern Ireland, there was no longer a local shop selling only new books.

Natasha Radford at Chicken and Frog in Brentwood reported that business had been going well – it is up 30% compared to this time last year, and all customers had responded well to being asked to wear masks in the store. Titles doing well include books about emotional well being and about nature. Radford was tackling the books due out in autumn with “a slight sense of panic”, saying: “We’re looking closely at what’s coming up and having to make decisions about which titles to focus on. It’s a bit of a gamble, but we can’t stock everything. The BA Children’s Guide has come into its own this season.”

The London Review Bookshop reopened its doors on 6 July, and manager Natalia de la Ossa said: “We have been happily surprised to see many of our customers come in to say hello; while footfall is still about a third or so compared to last year, our trade is pretty much stable and all in all a joyous month. So many lovely customers coming in to say hello.” On wearing face masks, she added: “Because we asked customers to wear face coverings since we opened it has really been quite smooth. Most people have been very respectful and have followed the guidelines that will keep everyone as safe as possible. In the first two weeks if customers were still not aware of our policy they were happy to accept the ones we offered. Now it is pretty much standard. I don’t think it is that comfortable for anyone, more so with the heat, but people make the effort.” The store has launched its digital events, with tickets to Ali Smith and Akwaeke Emezi selling steadily and more events tba. De la Ossa described the influx of new books in autumn as “quite exciting”, and added that she hoped that publishers would continue to offer terms enabling “fair trading with the bigger bookshops”.

Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves in Nottingham said that takings were down 8%, adding, “which is not bad considering in the same period in 2019 we had several bookshop events in July and one very large external bookstall”. He reported that although most people were happy to wear masks and sanitise their hands, there had been exceptions: “One person said he felt ‘bullied’ to wear a mask and sanitise his hands and will now only shop from Amazon, one other man walked away muttering furiously, but every other customer has been completely at ease with this. Generally it’s not a problem, with the odd exception people put them on as they approach the shop. We have spare masks if anyone forgets.”

The store has run a number of high-profile digital events that are still available on its YouTube channel, and that all had excellent attendances: an event featuring Tayari Jones, Kate Mosse and Ann Patchett attracted more than 600 viewers. Smaller scale readings will be available along with a half-hour interview every week with writers from the East Midlands. A book launch next month will feature music from the Kanneh-Mason family, who are local to the store. Five Leaves is now planning regular online events.

Bradshaw is looking forward to the rush of new books in September, saying: “There’s so many good books and we have to have them. Our shelves are already full… Not long until the Christmas period when we can thin the stock out a bit, but it might be a bit crowded in here until then.” He added that Summer by Ali Smith had been selling well, along with Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, along with poetry title In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forche. The store has put all its stock online now, and Bradshaw said: “Though not publicised yet ,people are finding their way to it, and we’ve sold quite a few books in the last month that are out of print or reprinting elsewhere as well as a bit of normal stock, because Google knows everything.”

Mail opens bookshop

Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, has launched an online bookshop with e-commerce specialist Monwell. The Mail Bookshop will “closely reflect” the titles featured in the papers.

Monwell, founded by Sara Montgomery and Nick Sidwell in 2016, is behind the online bookshops of the Guardian, Times Literary Supplement and Archant Community Media. Fulfilment is by Gardners.

Sidwell said: “It’s well known that a piece in the Mail is a fantastic way of getting a book in front of millions of readers. We’re truly excited about pairing this with our online bookselling expertise and making the Mail Bookshop a brilliant place to buy books.”

Tynan Stanyer, head of e-commerce at the Daily Mail, said: “We look forward to working closely with Monwell Ltd to give our readers access to a huge catalogue of books at great value and first class customer service. We are excited to combine the Daily Mail Group’s huge range of editorial coverage along with Monwell’s expertise in providing books fulfilment service.”