Needful things

Some weeks are sent to test us. This is one of them. On Monday, we learned that bookshops could be part of a first wave of non-essential retailers allowed to reopen from 1st June, with the emphasis, for now, on the “could”, as we wait uncertainly for government confirmation. On Tuesday, we reported that independent children’s publisher Walker had been sold to private equity-owned group Trustbridge Global Media (TGM). Later in the same day, we received notice that the boss of Simon & Schuster, Carolyn Reidy, had died.

We cannot blame Covid-19 for everything. But these developments speak to a world that continues to change, even as we remain in stasis. If we thought, as the UK’s Prime Minister once did, that all of this would be over in 12 weeks, think again. It is not just that we are in this for the long haul, but also how we are changed by it.

For booksellers, this new world approaches faster than some would like. They can now think of returning to work, but there is deep anxiety about how they do it safely. Of the respondents to the survey we ran online, 40% thought they would return, leaving close to two-thirds unsure or unwilling. From the comments, it is clear that many are fearful of being compelled, others are determined to get back to the till.

For Waterstones, with a mixed portfolio of big, small, town-centre and out-of-town shops, and staff who will remember the social media pressure to shut back in March, the decision will be doubly difficult. Accepting that such surveys are self-selecting, the results should still focus minds: 50% of indies said they would return, compared with just 28% of chain booksellers.

For Walker, the new world is here, with the former indie owned now by private equity via TGM, a group well-regarded for its running of US presses Holiday House and Peachtree Publishing, but still one with its own aims, demands, and inevitable exit strategy. Walker follows Egmont into new corporate hands, indicating that as children’s publishing has expanded here and globally, so has the need for capital and a committed parent.

Reidy would no doubt have cast a sanguine eye over all this change. She long had to battle the interests of her publishing businesses against the demands of S&S’ corporate owners, CBS first, and then the newly remarried ViacomCBS. Formidable is too callow a term (as I once learned, to my betterment) for Reidy, and though much will be written and said of her now, for me her chief (though not only) success was proving that a book publisher could thrive, even within a corporate environment that made it feel unwelcome or, as the phrase goes, non-core. If we have learned anything over the past two decades, it is that publishing does best when it is allowed to focus on the one thing it does well: publishing books.

Reidy knew that, of course. “Hardboiled and humane” is how Pan Macmillan m.d. Anthony Forbes Watson described her. It is no surprise then that she will be missed, and particularly now. To get out of this crisis, we will need to be both. Perhaps that is the test?