Bookseller survey: book trade staffers tell of anxiety over coronavirus outbreak

Bookseller survey: book trade staffers tell of anxiety over coronavirus outbreak

Anxiety about health and finances, stress at juggling childcare and uncertainty for the future are frequent reactions among book trade staffers to working through the current coronavirus crisis, according to the nearly 150 respondents to The Bookseller's survey, launched yesterday (Wednesday 25th March). However there are upsides, with many feeling remote working has made their teams more focused and creative.

Most respondents (62%) to The Bookseller survey were from publishing, with 19% booksellers, 6% agents, 3.5% authors, 2% distributors and 1% freelancers, plus 6% from other categories including scouts, recruiters, festival organisers and packagers.

Asked how they were feeling at this challenging time, many respondents shared feelings of anxiety around personal and family health and finances, as well as stress at having to juggle childcare, frustration at not knowing how long the Government’s social distancing measures will continue, and uncertainty for the future and their own job security. For a few there was also loneliness and boredom for having to work from home, a number saying they are “demotivated” or “missing colleagues”, or worried for their mental health, confined to cramped flats with housemates.

Looking at the economic impact coronavirus is having on the trade, one respondent publisher said they were “terrified”, with “limited sales to be had, in what was already proving a tough market”. An employee of Taylor & Francis however said they were “positive” with e-book sales doing well and “revenue protection clearly mapped out” by the company.

One agent praised publishers' communications of "business as usual", such as from Andrew Franklin at Profile, but another agent levelled: “despite most publishers declaring business as usual, some deals have been put on hold as publishers assess their financial strategy going forward.”

A respondent in translation sales said likewise that, although most of the markets they handle are still active, "there are lots of discussions about pushing back publications and reviewing formats for books publishing this spring. I haven't noticed a slow down yet, but I expect this to hit next week."

One freelancer concurred enquiries for new work “have dried up significantly” and more than one author said they were finding it hard to work for anxiety, with “no financial support at all”. 

In publicity, a key challenge cited was "how to publicise titles in a market in which face-to-face events are no longer possible". One festival programmer said "the thought of a year's work never being realised", should their October event be cancelled or postponed, was challenging, while another described putting more content online after one such cancellation. 

Publishing recruitment has meanwhile slowed down for the fact that "clients are hesitating to recruit".

Looking further down the road, the biggest challenge for one packager was the ability to keep production running smoothly and to schedule "if/when people get sick". 

Asked how supportive companies across the book trade have been, the majority of respondents working in publishing said they were getting "lots" of support, including in the form of tech and new office equipment like chairs, desks and larger computer screens to make their homes more suitable for home-working, and additional training on how to manage teams remotely, with many implementing daily catch-up calls or even exploring social events, such as pub quizes, to address wellbeing. 

A number of respondents said they felt “ok” or “surprisingly calm” about the situation, or else were philosophical, saying they were in “a fortunate position compared to some”. More positively, one respondent said it “feels like the future is here”, expanding, “this is how we should be working, more remotely, more technology, less micro engagement”.

In relation to accomodating workers with children since the government closed schools and nurseries, one publisher respondent said there were “very clear flexible guidelines on people juggling work with childcare or caring [responsibilities] so they are able to flex and do what they can” with others saying they are able to work either shorter or more flexible hours due to family commitments. However another said they were on “the brink of tears” for not getting enough support: “[I am] working my hours while trying to look after my child,” they said. Another chimed: “I'm working from home with a young family which is incredibly challenging but requests for guidance on this have been ignored.”

In distribution, one respondent said they were “anxious about being expected to work in an environment where resources and equipment is shared with a large number of people” while “equally understanding that the security of the business is my security once we get through these exceptional times”. In spite of special cleaning and social distancing measures in place, including isolated shifts, they highlighted “stairwells and corridor spaces make this challenging, as well as the inevitable few who do not respect others need to stay safe”.

Support for booksellers has been mixed, according to the survey. One employee, who works for an independent, said they had been able to stop working before the lockdown “to protect a vulnerable family member” and were put “on full pay for at least two months”. Another independent employee said they were “worried but glad we have adapted to online selling”. 

Waterstones employees who took part in the survey roundly lamented that communication has not been better from senior management. One employee said their “mental and physical health has taken a beating thanks to the situation and how it has been handled” by the retailer: “James Daunt was refusing to close until a huge public backlash on Twitter. They didn't seem to care that staff felt angry, upset and betrayed. We do get occasional emails now updating us on the situation but these are also vague and unwilling to accept blame."

Another said they thought communication to booksellers from the chain's boss, both directly and indirectly through the press, had been "very passive aggressive and unprofessional"; "We will be getting paid at least 80% of our wages, due to government support, which Daunt reminded us we were lucky to have, as the alternative would have been ‘mass redundancies’. This was unsettling," they said  "The manager of my store has been wonderful, as have my peers—my upset has come from Daunt and head office. A mass overhaul of their communication tactics is needed, and respect for booksellers must be found. At the moment, it is very much ‘them and us’."

Asked about the positives of the situation, a large proportion of respondents said remote working had actually made their teams more focused, creative and communicative. One publishing professional said: “I feel closer to colleagues and my authors - all of whom I probably talk to more. It's great also to have time at home and hopefully companies will see that flexible working really can work.”

Others predicted their companies would come out of the period with new digital ways of doing business and recognising the value of flexible working. A respondent said: “(Online) meetings are more focused, and disciplined. Contributions at them are more considered, relevant and useful. We are also, finally, removing our 'print-heavy blinkers' to engage more meaningfully with our digital catalogue and digital channels.”

Others said use of tools like Zoom has allowed people to “focus on essentials” while the restrictions meant employees could come up with creative ways to get books to readers. A publisher concluded: “I feel that, when we get through this, our systems and ways of working will be much more robust. The virus is exposing the cracks in what we do, which is painful, but ultimately we'll work in ways better fit for the 21st century. “

And another said: “We've started talking about whether there are e-books we could release early, saving print versions for later, which would be an interesting experiment for the company. It has also been the push for the company to now set up the capability of us selling e-books directly from our own website rather than only through third parties, which opens up great new opportunities.”

However, a significant minority saw no silver linings including Dead Ink publishing director Nathan Connolly who said his main challenge was “keeping the company afloat”. Asked about how the trade should react, he said: “Indie publishing golden age might well be over after this. Perhaps some creative thinking about how the industry can support us.”

Other suggestions for how the book trade should respond included pushing for better protection for freelancers and small businesses from the government and perhaps less reliance by the trade on freelancers long term by making more secure employment available. More investment in the digital and delivery supply chain "to allow the trade to continue as safely as possible without relying on stores or unsafe warehouse practices" was another thought, while a common theme was more support for booksellers, particularly of independents and at Waterstones.

One publisher wrote of the need for “vocal support” and fundraising for Waterstones and W H Smith staff. They said: “it's shameful there hasn't been more support for our bookseller colleagues, who were working right up until public pressure—not pressure from the trade—pushed Daunt into closing. Many of these booksellers still aren't paid the living wage.”

And there was a general embrace of remote/ flexible working, with several pointing out it could also help solve publishing's perennial diversity problem, particularly in terms of geographical diversity and disability. One respondent concluded, “I'm also hoping there will be broader repercussions across the industry from everyone realising you can actually work remotely; wouldn't it be nice if one of the silver linings were to make the publishing industry more inclusive."

Another respondent, thinking of the environment, pondered: "I'd like the trade to think, in future, about the possibilities of people doing more homeworking in order to save the planet. Interesting how CO2 emissions are diminishing... Does everybody have to be in the office five days a week?".