Survival mode; that’s how lockdown began for me, coming, as it did, off the back of two close family tragedies - the loss of both of my sisters in February and March respectively. “If only,” one family gag went, “we can get through April without anybody kicking the bucket we’ll be okay.”
It was funny at the time, cathartic even. We all laughed, including my long suffering Mum, who faced the highest risk of us all, labouring as she did with severe asbestosis. Two weeks later and she was dead, carried off like so many others with terrifying rapidity by COVID-19. Suddenly that little “joke” of ours felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy gone wrong, rammed home by the mounting death toll called out nightly in government press briefings. “We mourn every person,” various ministers repeated daily, but it didn’t feel that way. It’s not often you find yourself appreciating a cliched aphorism attributed to Stalin, but “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic” never rang so true.
This might sound like cringeworthy lip service, but if three immediate bereavements have taught me anything, it’s that worrying what others think isn’t likely to make anything better when all is said and done. So I’ll just say it: being in the publishing industry has helped me cope in ways I suspect would be unlikely in other places. You expect friends and family to rally around, but my colleagues, both at NBNi and in the wider Ingram group of companies, lent a level of support that makes the grieving process - one I’m still very much in the midst of - feel surprisingly manageable. At the outset I wondered if I’d be able to work; what I didn’t anticipate was wanting to work. A testament, no doubt, to the strength and good character of the people I come into (distanced) contact with every day.
Our industry has its share of problems: pay disparities, class nepotism and issues of diversity and representation aren’t the least of them. But it can also be said that there’s a current of thoughtfulness running through it you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Studies show that children brought up in households containing many books tend to attain higher levels of literacy. Perhaps there’s a similar phenomenon going on with those of us surrounded by books at work, a bibliographic osmosis where we imbibe emotional literacy, maybe without even knowing it. It seems that way to me: in addition to co-workers, the number of publishers and booksellers who responded with supreme kindness was simultaneously astounding and humbling.
On a less metaphysical level, I’ve found working through quarantine overwhelmingly positive. As a digital native it’s been satisfying to watch the acceleration of existing trends - remote working, device hopping, the power of the cloud - come into their own. Not all skepticism will have been displaced, but for those of us who used to working in an office it’s certainly hard to argue against the “proof of concept” of not needing to be tethered to a specific physical space. Just the time saved not driving to work alone has allowed me to read (and therefore learn) more - no bad thing, surely?
Marketing through the pandemic has been a challenge, a balance between acknowledging its impact without merely exploiting it, and a large part of that strategy has involved promoting indie booksellers. We can’t, unfortunately, bring down rents or overheads. But we can, and do, encourage footfall and sales.
Things are opening up, and I can’t pretend not to be extremely wary. It’s not the slow return to normality that bothers me; it’s hard to dispute the economic case, especially for the publishers and bookshops we serve. It’s just that there’s a certain frivolity in the tone with which announcements are made, a lack of seriousness last evident around the time my Mum first contracted this wretched disease. Safety and compassion: those should be our watchwords moving forward, however we feel about the trajectory we’re now on.
For all of that, I still feel incredibly fortunate. I haven’t, unlike many of my publishing and bookselling counterparts, found myself furloughed (or worse, out of a job). Long term, I’m actually optimistic about the future. If we can learn lessons, not just the obvious ones about preparedness, but also those to do with how we might forge new and dynamic ways of working, of acknowledging the vital importance of every single person in the supply chain, of holding those who rule over us to greater account, something undeniably good might come out of all of this yet. History suggests that may be a false hope, but on a personal level I’m determined to make sure we haven’t gone through all of this in vain.
Matt Devereux is a client account agent and marketer at book distributor NBN International.