Love, hope and business

Contrary to what you might read elsewhere, there are three stages to a pandemic. The up curve, the downwards one and the bit in between. I don’t wish to get ahead of myself, but with Italy allowing bookshops to re-open and other first-wave countries slowly and carefully relaxing their restrictions, the United Kingdom will also shortly be in transition too.

There is some way to go, of course, and with Covid-19-related deaths continuing to escalate, this will remain for many a scary and discombobulating time. A generation-defining moment of fear, change and renewal. Not unique to the book trade, but deeply felt by this most social and empathic of businesses. As Scottish poet Jackie Kay writes in her new poem “New Era” (featured in the magazine this week as part of our Scottish Focus, and on the front cover), we have all had to learn new rules: “Love is keeping our distance.”

A few weeks ago, I alluded to the sentiments of France’s President Macron in arguing that no bookshop should go down as a result of the economic fallout created by the coronavirus. But there remains other areas of the trade also severely impacted. Small presses have seen their revenue drop by as much as 90%, and now face increased costs from storing books that were meant to be in bookshops. Freelances’ commissions have dried up, and they must wait for invoices to be paid—never on time, of course. As we note in the magazine this week, many suppliers, such as printers and distributors, have kept on, albeit at reduced levels. Libraries’ doors have been shut at a time when their services have never been more in demand. Event organisers’ businesses have vanished. And many authors’ books may not now have the lives their creators would have wished.

Economically, we have rightly mostly been focused on limiting the downside from the lockdown, with many of the bigger publishers now having followed bookshops in taking advantage of the government’s furlough scheme, while re-working their forward publishing plans. However, there is now a strong argument to get ahead of the curve, and begin planning for the comeback. There is a business and emotional case for doing so; “to maintain morale and hope, people need a sense of what comes next,” argued the new Labour Party leader Keir Starmer in a letter to the government.

This week the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast a drop in GDP of 35% in the second quarter, but also suggested a rebound in economic activity that will leave us with a no less daunting shortfall of 13% for the full year. Some have called the virus an equal opportunities plague. But it will not feel like that to the businesses who can never recover from such an economic shock, or the authors and freelances left emotionally frayed. While there is little we can do about what happened as we travelled up on that corona-curve, what we must do is level the landing so those who suffered in the first phase are around to share in the relief that comes next. “Love,” writes Kay, “is a matter of belief, of hope, of trust”. For much of us at this time, so is business.