Faber, Canongate, Profile, Oneworld and Pushkin Press are among indie publishers who have confirmed to The Bookseller they are temporarily furloughing staff, making use of the government-funded scheme intended to alleviate the business impact of coronavirus. But the scheme also has its critics, with Will Atkinson of Atlantic Books (which is furloughing about 25% of its staff) calling it "clunky" and "completely unsuitable" for the industry.
Andrew Franklin, founder of Profile Books, confirmed: "We've furloughed about 20% of our staff. We asked for volunteers first across all departments, but nobody has been compelled. The criteria we used [took into account] individual wellbeing, the long-term health of the company, and the strain put on the people left behind." He added: "Why not tell the truth? It's going to come out anyway. Let's be completely honest."
Pushkin Press publisher and m.d. Adam Freudenheim said: "Like virtually every UK publisher I know of – large and small – we are in the process of furloughing some of our staff. We are also topping up salaries to 100% so furloughed staff don’t suffer at all financially. We see this as a temporary move to weather current terrible conditions in the marketplace with sales having fallen off a cliff in the UK & Ireland – and export – in the last two weeks or so.
"Once bookshops reopen sometime in May or June I expect I’m sure we’ll be able to begin to plan the return of all temporarily furloughed staff."
In a note to authors and agents, Faber chief executive Stephen Page announced the company was going to furlough staff according to the government scheme, to ensure Faber's "long-term good health." He told authors: "All areas of the company will have a good complement of staff to cover the work we are undertaking and we'll be making clear who to be in touch with if the person you usually deal with is on temporary leave."
Staff will receive 100% of their salary, and the procedure will be reviewed after three weeks. "We've adapted quickly to the new environment and have focused our energies on making a positive impact for readers and writers in this challenging moment," he said.
At Canongate, commercial director Jenny Fry said the company was furloughing staff alongside a range of other measures. She told The Bookseller: "We’ve pared back our publishing, we’ve taken pay cuts at the exec board level, and are furloughing where necessary."
She added: "Everyone’s been brilliant, and we’re so grateful to our staff and authors for their effort and their understanding. We’ll keep things under near constant review."
At Oneworld, publisher Juliet Mabey said she was furloughing "a few" members of staff, but that it was a reluctant step. "For small publishers, furloughing one person can often mean closing a whole department," she said. "Unlike other creative industries like art galleries, theatres and cinemas, publishers can’t just shut down, furlough staff and then reopen for business as usual when the lockdown is over, at least not without seriously damaging their businesses.
"We need to continue work on our autumn and spring 2021 lists if we are to have any books to publish, and any decent cashflow, once the high street reopens, and clearly we desperately need to make up for the shortfall this season."
Instead, she said she would prefer to see "a part-time furlough system for publishers (and other manufacturing companies), so staff could work one to three days a week when the workflow — and cashflow — are reduced, but still keep titles on track to help our recovery. This would actually be cheaper for the government, and leave publishers in a much healthier state after the lockdown."
At Atlantic Books, m.d. Will Atkinson said he was furloughing about 25% members of staff. He described the process as "clunky and cumbersome", saying: "We work weeks, months and years in advance and therefore furloughing for publishers is like putting a square peg in a round hole, it's not particularly appropriate for our industry. We need something a bit more nuanced.
"Everyone works together; having to pick and choose between [keeping] this editor and that one or that salesperson is completely unsuitable."
Bloomsbury had "no comment to give" on furloughing.
At the major publishers, Penguin Random House UK, HarperCollins UK, Hachette UK and Bonnier Books UK have all confirmed they are furloughing staff. However Simon & Schuster UK has opted not to. An S&S spokeswoman said: "We have no plans to furlough staff. This year will certainly present new challenges but we have a full and dedicated team working hard to come up with creative solutions." In addition to furloughing some distribution employees, Pan Macmillan has also asked higher paid staff to take a voluntary pay-cut.
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