Our Covid year

Our Covid year

We started as a computer company – our biggest project was getting The Financial Times onto the internet in 1997 – but we wrote and published books on the software and systems we used, and gradually became a publisher. We acquired Sustainable Energy – without the hot air less by judgment than luck (ten proper publishers declined it), which did very well (wholesale revenues of £1m+) and we bought Green Books.  This grew us from a Tiny Publisher with 9 titles to a Small Publisher with 259 titles. We had a problem increasing our turnover beyond that. Some years we published 20 frontlist titles, other years only four, but our turnover remained constant within one percent, so we were looking to acquire another list/publisher. 

Then Covid changed the world dramatically, and we’ve been thinking what we do now. So here's a snapshot of what the past year has looked like for at least one small indie publisher in the UK.

In March 2020 we decided not to attend LBF (if it went ahead).  Even in normal years we’re laid low by book-fair-itis from all the overseas microbes in the crowded halls, and Covid-19 would be a lot worse.
(+) We’re all well
(-) LBF charged 40% even without a book fair.

In April, with the world of books frozen, we spent a lot of what would have been idle time on our IT systems, and moved to ONIX 3, which really paid off.
(+) We got BIC Product Data Excellence Award accreditation.
(+) Deciding which titles need to be reprinted or sent to the US now takes five minutes a week instead of four hours.

By August it was clear that sales had more than recovered, and by late Autumn that we were going to have our best year ever (sales up 30%.)
(+) We were able to reduce our credit terms with our printers.  They were having a hard year with lockdown, so we paid them early for three months. (OK, they’re huge, we’re small, but every little helps. They’ve given us terrific service for years.)
(+) We paid all our freelancers early for the quarter. We want them to still be around when normality returns.

It was clear that everything now depended on the internet, so we installed an extra connection, from a fibre-internet provider.
(+) We have two completely independent connections. The fibre is completely separate from the BT network, which is crucial: otherwise you could have two separate providers but both running over the same wires to the BT exchange.
(+) It’s faster too.

Home-working due to lockdown meant we weren’t (and still aren’t) able to recruit a production exec and a sales and marketing manager.
(-) Everyone is overworked and haggard looking.
(-) Moving all our IT into the cloud would be a huge task, so we just limp along.
(+) Not having to pay salaries in Mar/Apr/May when the world was closed was a relief.
(+) We paid for a lot more marketing in the US, where bookselling was an essential industry, to speed up our recovery.
(+) It’s much easier to market via the trade instead of direct-to-consumer when you’re pushed for staff.

In Jan 2020, we had stopped selling direct from our website. We now refer readers to the bookstores, which we depend on. We signed up to Bookshop.org to support bookshops more broadly.
(-) Everyone else said (and still says) that was idiotic.
(+) We say: what would happens if Blackwells and Waterstones and all the independent bookshops vanish? We’ve had our best year ever, so we must do what we can now.

We postponed frontlist titles from Spring 2020 to Autumn 2020. This was a disaster; we ought to have waited at least a year.
(-) All our publicity became so diffuse it was useless. E.g. for our lead 2020 title we had confirmed Radio 4 Womans Hour and The Life Scientific and carefully scheduled appearances at TEDx talks, science festivals etc, but all this fell apart.
(-) Newly launched titles in our Cities through the Eyes of their Artists series depended on (now non-existent) footfall and visitors, and vanished without trace.

But instead, existing titles did fantastically.
(+) Practical gardening and building titles often doubled in sales, or better (e.g. two years' stock sold in eight months).
(+) Readers are buying titles that are already established and that they know about. By comparison, discovery of new titles isn’t as important.
(-) The unpredictability of sales means we often still run out of stock, because forecasting based on historical sales is meaningless at present.

Back in 2019 we moved to reprinting three months earlier than strictly necessary, because hurricanes in the Atlantic, port congestion, etc. often delayed shipments by a month or more.
(+) Almost zero manpower needed to manage deliveries.
(+) No heart attacks dealing with shipping agents and distributors trying to save one or two days to avoid going out of stock.
(+) Negligible cost: the interest on $50,000 at 1% for three months is £100.
(+) We hardly noticed Brexit.
(-) It still didn’t prevent stock-outs during Covid.

Previously we supplied US distributors via the UK; now we ship direct from printers in India to the US.
(+) Even if UK distributors or shippers are disrupted again, the US can sell our books as normal.
(-) Shipping costs are a lot higher.
(-) Books for the US still go via the Suez canal, which just goes to show you can’t think of everything!

The disheartening conclusion is that we finally increased our turnover solely because of the pandemic. We can claim some credit for two things, though. First, we’ve always been a backlist publisher, which allowed us to operate almost normally in 2020 even with reduced staff numbers.  Second, we’ve always generated a big cash surplus, which is why we were looking to expand, though after the effort of 2020 that’s on hold – we might look to merge with another publisher, or just take stock and see how things go for a while.

Niall Mansfield worked in Guy's Hospital; a Dublin investment bank; the European Molecular Biology Lab; and a Cambridge internet startup before setting up his own business.  He is MD of UIT Cambridge/Green Books.