Lockdown diaries: the deputy MD

I have a clear memory of the day that Covid-19 became a reality to me. My daughter, Matilda, was five months old, and Katie Espiner, MD of Orion, had just told me two things: that Hachette were planning to trial a full company work from home day, and that Italian book sales had dropped dramatically during their lockdown. The reality hit suddenly home. Bookshops would have to close; people were panic buying pasta, not paperbacks.

A few weeks before, we had started planning for my return to work, ideally in the early summer, but I discussed with my husband the idea of returning sooner. I’d already been through a period of grief over the personal costs of a global pandemic hitting the end of my maternity leave: the lost meet ups with friends and family, the cancelled mum and baby classes. Instead of being sad, I wanted to do something. Hachette are brilliant at supporting parents balancing childcare, so I decided to start back on 1st April, roughly six weeks earlier than planned.

The night before I was due to start back, I was gripped with anxiety. I’d been keeping in touch regularly while I was off, as my role as Deputy MD wasn’t being covered, and as a result, I knew that Orion was flying: we’d just had our best first quarter for years. So was I actually needed? And did anyone actually want me back?

I’m sure these fears are shared by many returning after maternity leave, but working remotely added extra challenges. I’d already spent six months at home: missing my colleagues, looking forward to getting dressed for that first day in the office, for periods of time that were actually mine.

I went back at the height of the peak. That first week we had to make decisions about publication dates (we held a lot in the end, and it was the right decision), whether to furlough staff (we did, around 25%), how to pivot our resources towards selling books without many core retailers in place (some very responsive digital marketing and PR, that has driven fantastic results).

On the first day, I’d asked our editors to send me the books they were most excited about and reading one I had that tingling feeling of something very special (Careless by Kirsty Capes, out 2021). I knew I was ready to galvanize a team behind a big launch; I knew I’d made the right decision to come back.

My day is far from predictable with a now 7-month-old baby. We have a daily check in with senior colleagues on Zoom - sometimes Matilda joins us, sometimes her dad has her. My husband is an author so I know how lucky that makes us in terms of flexibility. But he still has deadlines to meet and under these circumstances, it’s less than ideal. But we are making it work, so far at least.

Some days are better than others. There are days I feel I’ve achieved nothing, but then I reach out to a colleague in a similar position and know that it’s not just me. I need to be extremely strict with my time; I attend less meetings and I think we are finding virtual meetings efficient. I’ve had to say no a lot more, but that is something I’ve needed to learn throughout my whole career and we could all be better at.

I have a golden hour between 5.30 and 6.30pm where I give Matilda her bath, read her a story and put her to bed. I haven’t missed it once in two months and I don’t intend to. There is a peace that comes with that final moment of the day, of knowing that she’s happy and we’re okay. That we made it.

The support from Orion and Hachette has been amazing. David Shelley has reiterated that it’s about trusting us all to deliver, under whatever conditions, which has been hugely helpful. There’s a working parents’ network that share tips on how to balance your day, and there have been huge steps forward in what’s possible when balancing home and work life, particularly the idea of what is “allowed”. It’s definitely made me consider how many days I’d want to be physically in the office going forward.

And I’m incredibly grateful for my colleagues and our authors, who have adapted so well to this new world we’re living in. Our sales have held up; we’ve launched a major bestselling debut in Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, published blockbusters by Michael Connelly and Veronica Henry, and hosted virtual events with a huge global audience . So much of how we’ve adapted will carry on and it’s highlighted areas of the business we need to change or focus in on, which excites me hugely. And I’m relieved that the love of books hasn’t gone away. Because even in the darkest of times, people still need stories.

I wonder what I’ll tell my daughter about this time, how I’ll explain that I cut short some of my time with her to go back to work. But when I open Room on the Broom for the hundredth time and see her face light up, I’m hopeful that she will grow up to be proud of the role I play in getting stories out to the people that need them most.