Not many would have predicted back in March 2020 that 16 months on from the first national lockdown we would only now be slowly, hesitantly, emerging into a new reality. If you missed it, the government’s once-vaunted “Freedom Day” came and went in England on Monday 19th July, amid rising infections rates and messaging more mixed than a martini.
Nevertheless, we are where we are and as this industry has shown throughout the pandemic, we remain well-placed to endure. If booksellers were worried about how customers would react to the lifting of (some) restrictions, they needn’t have been, with reports from the frontlines suggesting that customers are sensitive to the welfare of retail staff—and, at a time when booksellers are also having to manage staff absences, the hot weather and a packed publishing schedule, this will come as a relief.
For publishers the question remains how and when to begin urging staff back into offices, and how much laxity to keep within the new requirements. Here companies will need to figure out how to offset the value of having a distributed workforce with the demands of a collegiate enterprise, especially as what worked during a lockdown may not now.
Either way, while much is yet to be re-made there remains a genuine opportunity for change and renewal. For example, as is evident in this Northern Powerhouse edition of The Bookseller, the pandemic has challenged not just the usefulness of centralised offices, but also their location. Hachette is not the only big publisher pushing outwards (some are already there, of course), but its aim to have 100 staff across its five new offices, in Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Sheffield, is a commitment well beyond what we might have expected had the virus and subsequent lockdowns not upturned our thinking.
Also important is how a sector that for so long was marked by high levels of human interaction—usually both civil and convivial—can get back to that happy state. A trade viewed through the prism of Zoom meetings, webinars and social media has become less appealing as the pandemic has run on. Yet building back better also means acknowledging that for those excluded from past physical events or gatherings, the online versions were not just a digital facsimile of what went before, but an improvement. How to achieve the creative friction we all want, that was previously best facilitated by physical meetings, will be one of the key challenges ahead. Its loss has been incalculable.
However it turns out, “Freedom Day” gives us a moment to reflect that even during the worst of times we were able to push books to the fore, meeting demand with supply when audiences needed to be informed, distracted and educated in equal measure. In a week when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos blasted himself into space inside a giant phallus-shaped rocket, those of us left on the ground should brook no such distraction. This is an important business with a generational opportunity to do what it does best—make and make again.