One evening a week or so ago, I was speaking to a friend in another publishing company, sitting at the kitchen table, glass of wine in hand, in today’s sad Zoom substitute for meeting up for a post-work drink. She referred obliquely to the famous WW1 recruitment poster, the one with the little girl on her shamed father’s knee, saying, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?”. My friend said, “Afterwards, we’ll all talk about ‘what we did in the war’.”
Of course, to equate the current health, social and economic crisis to WW1 is banal and overused at best, and distasteful and trivialising of conflict at worst: we’re in a socially-distanced queue for Sainsbury’s, not at the Somme. But, still, this made me think about how publishers and, in particular, publishing leaders, will account for what we did “in the war”. Because I think it is the case that our staff, our authors, illustrators and their agents and our customers in the UK and elsewhere will – and should – judge us by what we did during the pandemic.
The conversation with my friend prompted me to reflect on what we’ve done so far at Nosy Crow.
To start with, we’ve worked out how to keep a business going. It’s a business that normally happens in a single big room and now happens in tens of different places – the homes of our staff. Most of us began working from home on 17 March, and no-one’s really been in the office, other than to pick stuff up to post or courier it, since Adrian, the CFO, cleaned out the big fridge on Friday 20 March. I am so proud of how everyone has adapted. Some of us went “home” to our parents, and are working from the bedrooms we last occupied as a child, our fluffy pink dressing gowns on the back of the door. We’re managing iffy wifi and working on equipment that is not necessarily as speedy or up-to-date as the equipment we have at work if we didn’t, as most did, tuck our Macs under our arm and take them home. Some of us are juggling our work with child-care or other caring responsibilities, while some of us are entirely alone through lockdown. Many of us are undertaking tasks that would have been outside our job role before this (though I still can’t work the franking machine on my odd forays into the office, so it seems that there are some new tricks that I am too old a dog to pick up). And, of course, like everyone else, many of us are working while we worry about people we love who are, for whatever reason, at risk.
But everyone who normally works in our London Bridge office is working. I know that other publishers have chosen to furlough staff. At Nosy Crow, we haven’t. This isn’t because we are hugely rich – we aren’t, and we have applied for one of the government-backed loan via the CBILS to help get us over the cash crunch that we can see ahead – but because that seems like the best thing to do to keep the show on the road both right now and for the future.
So what have we done?
Here are some of the new things we’ve done because of the coronavirus:
We’ve made elements of our books available online and free through our own website, but also by working with the BBC, Waterstones, schools and libraries, bloggers and vloggers, and theatre companies. We want to entertain and educate families in lock-down and, we hope, to build new audiences for our authors and illustrators. We’ve had to draft and negotiate new documentation to reflect this gratis use.
We published fast, and published free, Coronavirus: A Book for Children, our digital information book, illustrated by Axel Scheffler. It’s been downloaded more than a million times from our own website alone, and has been translated and made available free in over 60 other languages.
We’ve undertaken a comprehensive overhaul of our metadata, both in preparation for our new website, and in acknowledgement of the increased proportion of our sales that are coming from online retailers.
We’ve rescheduled our books intelligently and carefully (and, in some cases, more than once as situations change), pushing many of them into 2021 and beyond to give each book its best chance. We’ve done this rather than ramming them into the last few months of the year, which seems to be a more common approach, and which we fear may leave the end of this year overcrowded.
We’re creating, on hugely ambitious schedules, a handful of books specifically for important overseas customers who order large quantities.
We’re focusing on the markets and customers and consumers that are open and keen to engage with us, switching to digital forms of marketing and selling: we’re launching a second Instagram channel next month, for example, and we’ve run 70 virtual “Bologna” meetings with rights customers so far.
These are just some of the new things we are having to do BECAUSE of coronavirus. There’s been a whole bunch of other stuff that we have had to do IN SPITE OF coronavirus, including (successfully) dealing with a ransomware attack, paying a record amount in royalties in March, and, of course and crucially, working on existing titles and acquiring new titles for the future, and collaborating with our authors and illustrators.
Our business performance to the end of April – the beginning of lockdown – was our strongest ever. Our sales are currently 15% up year on year.
But, of course, we’re just two months into this. Notoriously, if apocryphally, Europe launched into WW1 in July 1914 saying that it would “all be over by Christmas”. The war lasted four years, three months and two weeks. So far, I am proud to tell anyone what Nosy Crow has done “in the war”: I think we have been generous and supportive and careful and savvy and kind. And I hope that, starting from a point of real strength, we can emerge on the other side, whenever that is, resilient and enthusiastic and having learned about ourselves and our business, to tell the full story.
This piece was originally published in The Bookseller.