Some of what we have learnt about working at home as part of a publishing team over the past six years is true of all remote workers.
But some of the challenges and rewards are very specific to book publishing – and so glaringly obvious that they can be easy to overlook…like the fact that the majority of the publishing industry still works to produce physical objects (alongside all the digital material, reports, communications and e-editions modern publishing needs). There’s nothing remote about a hardback – it needs heft, tactility and appeal – so there are particular challenges for publishers to this new reality.
Here are the things we’ve learnt in the past six years. Often the hard way:
1 Anyone involved in creating the physical product must have access to a decent printer. Type size always looks bigger on screen than the page. And many designers seem to have weirdly good eyesight and a love for tiny text.
2. Production checks take longer as everything has to be physical sent. Schedules are slower. And it costs way more if your team are sending things rather than walking them down to sales or editorial for sign off.
3. Royal Mail is a million times more reliable than most couriers i.e. Hermes. In fact, if we can impart one piece of useful advice: don’t use Hermes, ever.
3. Cover proofs are still worth spending money on. Colours are always brighter on screen. It’s a lot cheaper to do a few proper cover proofs than reprinting a whole jacket.
4. So much of publishing is about interaction with different kinds of people and businesses. Each project involves creatives, departments with commercial agendas and teams with logistical imperatives. That’s a lot of links and tasks that can go wrong. The person who can bring all that together in a meeting may be a different person from the one who can generate momentum and decisions online. Put simply – the best remote team leaders may be different people from office team leaders.
5. This is because working and managing remotely is a very real, very new skill. We just published a book about this called Invisible Work by John Howkins. Those who are good at it will chose teams and collaborators who actually answer emails and phone calls. Not the interesting genius who buries their head in the sand and produces something for the meeting at the last minute. Those people belong to a different workstyle (or era).
6. It’s easier to disagree and throw your weight around on email than in a phone call, but you can’t see how it’s being received. Use the phone for anything delicate or problematic then follow up with positive notes of the points agreed.
7. Shared systems must be kept up to date. When you can’t pop over to someone’s desk and ask for a speedy favour, it’s harder to cover up being behind on admin.
8. It can be even harder to get decisions made to allow you to do your job. Without those big meetings projects sometimes have to be broken down into small responsive converstions which are allowed to progress independently – as long as they get updated regularly. The tech industry use Slack for ongoing product and project management – a more organic way of producing progress. It might feel diffuse but in fact its swifter than passing around bulky emails with multiple points. Too many people forward emails as a way of passing the buck.
9. In the end you will make more decisions alone when working from home. Which can start to feel lonely. Don’t be afraid of picking up the phone for input or a friendly colleague’s ear. We have got out of the habit of phoning friends and into the habit of messaging andf emailing colleagues rather than calling them. Reclaim the phone call to ensure home-alone sanity.
10. If you are working from home all the time you lose your day at home to focus. Work out the best time for the deep concentration jobs – whether its data analysis or manuscript reading. We find it easiest to do the deep stuff straight way – before we have been distracted by emails, sales figures, requests, social media. In any case, do change the space you are in if you can. And turn off wi-fi.
11. Obvious but… make sure you take a lunch break. Many of the September team have dogs, and it gives you the perfect excuse to get out into the fresh air and think about something else entirely. Even if you don’t have a dog, get outside and go for a walk every day if you can.
12. An upside of home working is that you save time commuting, and so have more time to behave like a consumer – a potential purchaser and reader of all those lovely books. Be more like a punter, listen to the radio, look at the local newspaper and take the opportunity to step out of the office bubble.
13. And get to know independent booksellers in your area. Even if its just via Twitter. We have asked bookshop owners for feedback on covers and titles. Once you are out of the office a whole variety of civilian feedback opens up.
14. As for the day when the schools close I can only wish you luck. Kids provide very energetic cover meeting critique if asked. Tougher than even the toughest boss. In fact, leave things lying around and they will probably give you feedback whether you want it or not….
By Hannah MacDonald and Charlotte Cole of September Publishing.
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