Locked down, but not out

Last week I wrote, in respect of the coronavirus, that decisions taken in good faith one day, may go bad the next. For Waterstones managing director James Daunt, even 24 hours was too long. On Sunday morning (22nd March), as many employees took to Twitter to vocalise their concern about continuing to open, he vowed to keep the chain trading as an essential business. By the afternoon, he had taken the decision to shut stores, effective from Monday (23rd March). 

Just as the London Book Fair drew criticism for the perceived length of time it took to make (the perhaps obvious) decision, so did Waterstones, as authors and customers piled in to express their annoyance that staff and shoppers were being placed in harm’s way. By midmorning, Waterstones was trending on Twitter, the latest in a lengthening line of retailers that were balancing the necessity of doing business with the brand-damage done by staying open. By Monday evening, it was academic anyway, as the government enforced the lockdown across most high street shops.

Daunt’s reversal, writ large on social media, is but an echo of the very difficult decisions many others will also now have to take. Waterstones’ wage bill is £60m a year; without revenue from selling books, it will simply cease to be viable as a company—and quickly. Daunt said he would now place many staff on furlough—whereby the government will pay 80% of the employee’s wage, up to a value of £2,500 per month—as the only alternative to enforcing redundancies. This week’s rise in book sales (as measured by Nielsen BookScan), while welcome, merely rubs the salt in. We want to buy books, but we cannot now do so through high street shops. 

Publishers, initially shielded by the rise in the print book market and a strengthening of digital business, are now too on the wrong end of this perverse curve, as the supply chain locks up. Quarto has already reduced its output and asked staff (voluntarily) to work a four-day week. Many others will be tightening their belts and examining their publication schedules, as Penguin Random House, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster have indicated they will. I do not know what the book supply chain looks like without bookshops to open and booksellers to stack shelves and hand-sell to their customers: understanding and quantifying this demand will be vital in what publishers do next.

We should not forget that there is a human side to all this. According to a survey The Bookseller is running online, many staff are fearful, worried about the shortterm implications for their jobs, but also the industry at large. Some employed staff feel unsupported; freelances are, of course, acutely worried (pending a new government announcement on their rights), and this will include many, many authors.

Our business leaders need to step up, find a new language that offers assurance as well as a way forward through the current complexities. Last week, UK chancellor Rishi Sunak said “we will be judged by our capacity for compassion”. Book publishing has always been about more than profit, now is the time to demonstrate it, in word and deed.