The whole industry, the whole world it seems, has now shifted online, making the digital space even more crowded than it was anyway. There has been a proliferation of online festivals launched, among them HouseBound 2020, ‘the world’s first antiviral festival’, created by readers and authors in partnership with the contemporary writing magazine Wasafiri, and Paul Blezard’s Lockdown LitFest, organised by the doyen of literary festivals, which already has Ian Rankin, Joanna Harris, Philip Pullman, Professor Kate Williams, William Dalrymple and Carol Drinkwater on board.
As fast as these online ‘openings’ occur – or faster in fact, much faster – so the physical closings continue. Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt bowed to the inevitable and closed 400 of the 627-strong chain, saying: “This is a devastating situation in which to find ourselves and we understand the personal impacts of such action.”
The news from Italy is grim in all regards. While nothing can compare to the human cost, nearly 90% of publishers have expressed “great concern” over their continued survival. In France Hachette is among publishers to have introduced measures to help booksellers, including extended payment deadlines, while the European and International Booksellers Federation described the prescribed closure of bookstores across Europe as “a threat to the financial sustainability of many businesses in the bookselling industry”.
One of the interesting questions people are asking is what will be the long-term effects of the change in working life – for those lucky enough to be still in work. When once it was homes that were quiet during the day, now it is ‘work’ that is quiet. All those gleaming atriums, all those rooftop cafes like the splendid one at Hachette on the Embankment, all those open plan offices – they are all now largely silent. Will they be completely filled when all this over, or will home working become more permanent, thanks to Zoom and the like?
Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, noted that the crisis has already led to a speeding up of change. “History is accelerating and the processes that usually take years, even decades, are now taking just a couple of days. If I look at my own university, they have been talking for 20 years about moving some courses online, and nothing happened.
“Now, within one week, they moved the entire university, all the courses, online. In one week. And when the crisis is over, it’s not like we’re going back to the place where we started. And it will be the same in so many different areas.”
It is a time of fine words. In a note to staff Tom Weldon, Penguin Random House UK CEO, said: “Many of us have navigated issues and crises at work but never of this magnitude. I know that you will do what you can to help and support one another and take responsible action to reduce the risk to others. While doing so, please be sure to protect your own mental and physical wellbeing…
“Thank you in advance for your patience, commitment and creativity in ensuring that we keep focused on getting our books into the hands of readers; there has never been a more significant time to share the power of reading. And take care of yourself and your family and friends; nothing is more important right now.”
Finally, two positive notes. The China Daily reports that some bookstores in Shanghai have resumed operations, although epidemic prevention and control measures like body temperature checks are strictly implemented; and in a defiant interview with the Bookseller, the Booksellers Association’s MD Meryl Halls said: “We will return from this with a new appreciation for each other, for human endeavour, for writing, for community. There will be lots of hugging. Lots of tears. Some wine. Many parties. More hugging. A billion books sold. Bookshop doors thrown open, authors spilling onto the pavement. Laughter.”
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.