I wanted to leave London ever since I got there at 26. Yep, I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. For years I tried to fit in – to this new city and to this alien culture of London publishing – but it never felt like home. Mouldy basement flats, hour-long commutes, networking events where I felt like I’d missed the memo on how to communicate. Though, if I’m really honest, the main issue was that I didn’t find my people. Or rather I did, but they lived hours and three tube changes away.
Only weeks before the virus came to the UK I had decided to ask the company I work for if I could be allowed some flexibility in my location. Bristol was my intended destination, because my sister and niece were there, and I had always felt an affinity with the city, though I’m actually from the suburban Midlands. Then the virus hit, and that decision was made for me. I knew, gut instinct, that I couldn’t survive three months on my own in a place I didn’t call home. I’ve dealt with depression for a long time. So I put my cat in her basket, a few clothes in a suitcase and left, no regrets. I turned up at my sister’s house and soon found myself hermitting in a loft with a dodgy window that let actual book-riffling gusts of wind through, and a niece who enjoyed nothing more than going through my bedside cabinets for the most dangerous thing she could put in her mouth.
I was so happy. This was the most terrible time in our nation’s history, but I suddenly had a support network with which to deal with it. For many people, their support network was in the office; but for me, it was in this city where friends and family live, where subcultures and protest thrive, and where you can see the hills from almost anywhere. And that’s during a pandemic – who knows what it will feel like afterwards!
As it became clear we were doing pretty fine without an office and that the company was starting to see remote working in a different light, I took the plunge. I’d seen the house hundreds of times on my lunchtime walk – a yellow door and a crab-apple tree in the front garden – and imagined. And then, miraculously, it went up on sale, and I could afford it if I saved madly and borrowed a bit. The kind of place I’d never in a million years be able to dream of owning in London. (Side note: I do get a good salary, and without that, the house would still have been a dream.)
My story is just one example of perhaps a hundred or so of us London-leavers. In Bristol alone I know of around 20 new people in publishing and adjacent industries arriving over the last couple of months. I estimate from my highly unscientific research around 5% of publishing employees are considering an exit, more if you count central teams like IT. What does our desertion mean for publishing? This piece is my answer to that, having spent a year living it.
We are often accused of being too inward-looking as an industry, and I wonder if part of the reason for that is we are mostly all in one place, speaking to each other. In the seventeenth century this London-centricity was law, and in the twentieth century it made economic sense, but in this new world where our goal is to publish books for everyone and we have the ability to work from anywhere, I don’t think we can remain the same. We need to listen more to the people who buy our books and who don’t buy our books. That includes people in London, but many more not in London. I believe that if a number of staff were to live and work in a diverse range of locations, we would, without needing to try very hard, jump-start that listening process.
Drawing our staff from a range of locations would also benefit us. The reason I am the publisher I am, is because I was formed in another world entirely. And I didn’t join this one until part-way through my career. This meant that when I joined London publishing I questioned everything, from the way we ran meetings to the books we published. Despite resisting a type of publishing-person homogeneity as much as I could, I have found myself falling into it over the past few years (kisses at the end of emails, anyone?). Moving back to Bristol last year has reinvigorated me in so many ways – I feel unfettered, able to publish in a way that feels truer to my authentic self, listening to outside influences once again. (I do still do the kisses though.)
I’m not saying that everyone in London is one homogenous mass – the majority of people I work with find their zing there, have their home there – but for some of us, we need another world, and that world will make us better publishers. Not to mention the clear benefits it would bring in terms of allowing more inclusive hiring, from working parents to those who can’t afford a move to London, or those who are not able to work in an office due to a disability.
There are subtler ways in which the move has affected me and the immediate world around me, too. I mentor a young writer who I spotted in the local newspaper. I was approached to be on the board for a local publishing course. I buy from my local bookshop. I’ve connected with a local charity. I also help my sister with childcare and spend my money in the local area. You could’ve done most of that in London, I hear you say – to which I say: but I didn’t.
None of this was, I confess, my motivation for moving. It was all selfish, though I knew being happier would make me a better publisher. But having done so, I realise my move has had a far greater impact on my work and for my company and the world around me than I expected.
I think our approach should be one of active encouragement for those people who feel a pull to other locations for whatever that reason should be. It’s unlikely that everyone would want to, and I imagine that we might end up with around 25% of the workforce in other locations, coming into the office for big meetings and to refresh relationships, and continuing those relationships online, as the technology gets better and better. The thing I have missed more than anything is connecting with colleagues in a social setting. I believe those connections are the bedrock of any successful business, and I can’t wait to be in a room having a cuppa with a range of colleagues. We can do both, and both will feel more exciting for it.
I want publishing to be a place that embraces and encourage differences, that is a place for people we don’t always understand, as much as it is for people like ourselves. In the end, we are all united by a love of books. That is the great equaliser and connector. That is what makes our culture, not proximity.