Week 2/21 – Week ending 8 January

Publishers undaunted by lockdown and unruffled by Brexit

Anthony Forbes Watson, md at Pan Macmillan, said: “Another lockdown has looked inevitable and necessary for a while, and whilst it is of course difficult for everyone in many ways, it comes in parallel with the roll out of the vaccine and renewed hope for us all that some level of control over this pandemic is in sight. At Pan Mac we have furloughed very few employees and only in cases where roles are either difficult or impossible to perform when under lockdown constraints; our approach will remain the same this time.

“We have seen our high street and independent bookselling partners step up in 2020 and they have done amazing work, especially through the second lockdown, to continue selling books online to their local communities; as a result we plan to move few books out of this period and to ensure that the strong publicity and marketing in place for our titles is not wasted. Booksellers need our new titles to answer increased consumer demand for reading in these darker days.”

Juliet Mabey, publisher at Oneworld (pictured), said: “We had expected a lockdown to come into force post-Christmas, but I had anticipated a possible extension to the end of March, so we took the decision to move some titles from February and March to April. In addition to some superlead hardbacks, we were particular anxious to protect the paperback editions of books whose first editions were hit by the first lockdown – it seemed too unfair for both editions to be published with brick & mortar bookshops closed, even if Amazon provides a full service this time, and we also have the new online support of Bookshop.org to offer books on behalf of indie booksellers as well.

“In addition one or two of our staff will be working reduced hours, but we have a heavy publication schedule for 2021, so most will be working full time, but remotely. Our office, which opened at the beginning of August last year for staff who wanted to come in, will remain closed while London is in Tier 4 – or worse – but as we set everyone up for remote working last March, and some staff never came back into the office last year, the response to the new lockdown has been seamless. While I’m sure everyone would greatly prefer to have the high streets open, our books selling as normal, and to return to the facilities and camaraderie of office life, we are all quite resigned to the current situation, and to do whatever we can to support our authors and their books, whether that means extra editions with exclusive finishes for different outlets, or additional marketing initiatives.”

Bloomsbury chief executive Nigel Newton said: “It changes little from what we became used to between March 23rd and June 15th. I am concerned for all parents who have to school their children again and against all the odds do their jobs somehow at the same time, all people working in difficult conditions at home, everyone suffering from Covid and their families as it rolls out to a far wider group in what a medical person described yesterday as a new and frightening vertical take-off, the NHS, and, of course, our customers locked down once again for whom this is horrible.

“The only good thing is that reading will, I imagine, continue to surge as a displacement activity in the miraculous and wondrous way it has since the summer. We are not delaying any publication dates (and our books are reaching the Continent just fine thanks to a rocket Elon Musk lent to MDL!)”

Experience from the first lockdown, when book sales through supermarkets held up well, has led Ian Chapman, Simon & Schuster UK ceo and publisher, to hang on to agreed publishing slots in January and February. “In terms of publishing, we learnt a lot from the first lockdow,” Chapman said. “Planning in the last quarter of 2019 has been guided by what we can get to our customers in the first quarter of 2021. We will judiciously move one or two titles, not as many as in the first lockdown.”

On running the publishing house, Chapman said: “We’re not planning to do anything different, we’ve been doing it for nine months and it’s been working,” adding that 2020 was a more profitable year for S&S than 2019.  Although a small number of staff were furloughed in the initial lockdown, Chapman has no intention of furloughing anyone this time. His main concern is with the health and wellbeing of staff working from home: “We have to be very, very cognisant of people’s welfare.”

It is understood that Penguin Random House will be operating much as it did during the November lockdown, with office-based staff working from home. Last month, Winter Hours was launched, allowing staff to tweak their working hours and take Friday afternoons off. Some measures introduced in the first lockdown, such as such as regular, virtual all-staff briefings from CEO Tom Weldon and a digital version of the staff book club, have been running ever since.

In the context of Covid, December 31’s Brexit and its feared disruption to trade has so far proved to be the dog that didn’t bark. Mabey said: “As to Brexit, my understanding is that the current deal, however ‘thin’, will at least allow EU members to continue working here and will keep goods moving in and out of the EU, so the anticipated higher warehouse charges and logistics costs associated with possible staff shortages and longer transport times might be largely avoided. Let’s hope so.”

Forbes Watson added: “Everyone has always known that deal or no deal, we would all end up economically worse off as a result of Brexit. In the context of damage limitation, it is therefore relatively good news that a deal has been arrived at, rather than no deal. That said, any form of Brexit throws up many complications, some of which may only become apparent with time, and for the moment we anticipate additional bureaucracy in the supply chain including paperwork at the borders.  We have planned for these eventualities and are very grateful to our partners for their collaboration.  We are as ready for Brexit as we can be.”