In terms of technology, we were lucky to be well set up for remote working: our company had already made sure we were equipped with the things we needed to work from home, so when it was announced that the office was closing,
I was able to carry on and keep things moving. In the first couple of weeks of the government-enforced lockdown, it was comforting to have work as a source of structure. I’m very aware that I’m fortunate to have a job that can be done from home, no additional caring responsibilities which needed to be juggled alongside work, and – since I bought a small desk to go in the corner of the bedroom – a quiet space of my own to work in.
While most of my tasks as a commissioning editor can be done from home, I don’t think there’s a single one that isn’t made easier or more enjoyable by being able to get up, run up the stairs/run down the stairs/walk over to a colleague and ask them a question or for their opinion. We’ve adapted to the use of video and instant messenger really well, but there’s a whole different kind of communication that is difficult to replicate if you can’t see someone in person. I regularly ask the editors I work with for opinions on a cover, on copy, on the wording of a diplomatic email. That might sound like a co-dependent nightmare, but actually it’s brilliant, and collaborative, and how you learn when you’re doing things for the first time. We still do this, of course, but it’s harder; there’s no casual leaning over to ask a question without wrenching the other person away from what they’re doing.
Lockdown also of course coincided with protests in the US and the UK over the killing of George Floyd, and urgent calls for the UK to look at its own history of institutional racism – including the institutional racism endemic in the publishing industry. The conversations that have followed about how we can change for the better our behaviour and how we publish books have been important and long-overdue; I wish we had been able to have them in person.
The extraordinary circumstances did throw into relief how kind the people I work with are – from checking in with each other regularly, to sharing what drink you planned to mix to mark the end of the working day, I’ve never been more glad to have colleagues I like.
Across the industry in general, there has also been an incredibly impressive amount of creativity on display. When they couldn’t take photos of the actual books, Foyles reimagined their online top 10 as social distancing government advice posters. The Influx/Burley Fisher/Picador series Short Stories for Strange Times broadcast interviews with short story writers on Instagram. Publishers and indie bookshops such as Pages of Hackney have curated events with a brilliant line-up of authors, and this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival moving online means that anyone can attend, and authors from all over the world can take part without travelling.
Nothing, though, will make up for how tough this has been on retailers and publishers – particularly small independent presses. I got a bit carried away with subscriptions and now have the joy of different magazines, journals or bundles from indies arriving in the post at regular intervals. And when collecting the post can be the highlight of your day, that’s a real plus, I can tell you.
I know some people who found it difficult to concentrate on reading when lockdown started and the pandemic ramped up across the world. I didn’t experience that. The hours I would have spent commuting, I can now spend reading submissions – which is great, though I still miss my cycle to work to the extent that I now and again cycle stretches of it. I also took part in a War and Peace read-along (#TolstoyTogether), which was very enjoyable, if not a strange leisure activity for someone who has to read for their job.
When it comes to the future, I’d like what most people would like: a vaccine for Covid-19 so that vulnerable people could be sure it was safe to leave their homes, and everyone could see their loved ones without worrying. I’d also like in-person events to start again too; I never thought I’d miss being packed into a bookshop drinking warm wine with lots of strangers, but it would be very nice to do be able to do that soon.