Lockdown diaries: the indie publisher

It came as no surprise that I caught the dreaded Covid-19.

I spend an inordinate amount of time on the road with international and domestic authors, long hours in various media centres, and travel by London transport. We also live in a coronavirus hotspot, with multiple cases on my street alone. My neighbour’s husband was symptomless, yet still passed away after a month on a ventilator.

I did have pretty classic symptoms: red-ringed eyes, night fevers, a sore throat and headache, with a mild cough. To begin with. A week of bearable discomfort passed and I felt well enough to email my amazing team and authors to reassure them and provide the steps to get through unprecedented times. But then I crashed, experiencing crushing abdominal pains severe enough to call an ambulance, a sky-high fever that refused to respond to any treatment, breathlessness and an incomparable headache. I was unable to leave my bed for two full weeks, dosed up on codeine and covered with three layers of blankets and a duvet. As the country went into full lockdown, with bookshops and distributors closing, I was experiencing an unprecedented health lockdown and it’s something I will never forget. At its worst, Covid-19 presented the possibility of my own demise and that, of course, changes everything.

Alongside this, the publishing industry was falling apart and I was absolutely unfit to lead my small company anywhere. Things were quiet, and we’d taken the decision to postpone print publication of our May and June titles, initiating a series of online events, promotions and opportunities for authors to engage virtually with readers, but even in my compromised state it soon became clear that we were looking at a serious, possibly untenable, situation. One by one, festivals and events were being cancelled - a devastating development and a seemingly insurmountable problem when so much of our marketing involved putting authors in front of readers. Print sales were down by about 90%, creating a cataclysmic hole in our budget and cash-flow forecast. Government initiatives were largely useless. Our offices are in my home; I am a director, every penny we have was ploughed into the company, and everyone on the team is freelance. Eventually options for the self-employed emerged, but we need everyone on board in order to have any hope of a publishing schedule for the remainder of this year and 2021. But how do we pay them?

Drifting in and out of sleep and confined to my bed, wary of contaminating the rest of the household - including my eldest son, whose already busy role as publishing assistant became dramatically larger as he took responsibility for everything so much that I could not do - I got to grips with a Kindle I’d never quite warmed to and began to read. I noticed what other publishers were doing to keep readers engaged, what the sweet spot was for pricing (from my point of view, anyhow), how we might encourage further reading across our various series and what extra content made an ebook unmissable. I dreamed of marketing plans, hastily scribbled onto scraps of paper by the light of my Kindle, and ideas to maintain an online presence throughout lockdown.

As the worst of it passed, we received news of books being long and shortlisted for prizes, and suddenly things didn’t look as gloomy. E-book sales could and would improve and while they would never cover the loss of our significant print sales, we could find new readers and get them on board. Social media continued apace and a slew of online retailer promotions meant that books were climbing the rankings. We sent out our newsletter every other week instead of monthly, with free e-books for front-line workers and over-70s in isolation, special discounts for orders placed with independent bookshops, and a host of competitions, and the response was immediate and dramatic. Our authors have risen to the challenge of becoming more visible online and have worked incredibly hard to promote deals and to celebrate successes. It’s been humbling, and it’s made me more determined than ever to find ways to succeed. We’ve always been known as ‘Team Orenda’, and the spirit that drives that is ultimately what will help us to make it through these difficult times. Together. At home, my lovely sons and partner have rallied around and apart from a soaring grocery bill and the inevitable complaints about our new cleaning and cooking rota, we’ve managed to remain relatively unscathed by lockdown.  

Almost three weeks after the worst of it passed, I am still only capable of working half days, and the energy that has driven so much of what we have achieved over the past five years is at an all-time low. And, yet, I feel positive about the future. I am so proud of my authors and their bold, fabulous books, and we are honestly blessed to have such a brilliant community of engaged and hugely supportive readers, reviewers and retailers. All of us are likely to emerge slightly battered into the next phase of publishing, but as I myself learned in the darkest of periods, books can be salvation and succour, providing intellectual and imaginative stimulation like nothing else. Right now, I can’t think of a better industry to be in.