I recently emailed our authors to provide an update as best as possible and it seemed a natural step to write this open article. This post is written partly for general interest but also to acknowledge the tremendous effort being put in by our staff in the current circumstances.
Our sales up until the tail end of March were close to expectations but have subsequently been disrupted. We are fortunate to have two scale distributors; GBS (Part of Penguin Random House Distribution) in the UK and Two Rivers (part of Ingram Content Group) in the USA. Both are communicating with us very well and are working hard to maintain services. In the case of Two Rivers, who also handle North American sales, we are getting excellent weekly updates on the market in America.
Since the start of April, we have seen an increase in sales to online retailers and a near complete collapse of everything else. As our books are relatively niche, online retail has always been a significant proportion of our sales but we do sell through independent art and craft retailers and the independent book trade and that part of our business is now in hibernation.
The orders from our online retail customers still trading are very erratic, so right now we probably don’t have the full picture of sales performance and customer demand during this period.
Of course, publishing is a business that is always working on different timetables. Many of our team are long past focusing on the books publishing today and are working on books with dates well into 2021.
Managing the balance of looking forward beyond the current status, while controlling costs as much as possible in the short term, is tricky.
People, Working from Home and Furloughing
We moved the office to home working from Tuesday 17th March and so are at the one month anniversary of this date. The team have adapted brilliantly and are overcoming obstacles every day to be able to move the company forward.
I am very proud of all of our staff for how well they have adapted.
Our IT approach has been cloud-based all along and so our technology and infrastructure have coped well. We were part-way through some changes to our design and editorial workflows, so that team have had to adapt accordingly before the project was completed.
You quickly learn that the issues to navigate are less technology-based and more cultural. How to maintain regular contact?; When to use email, chat, audio and video calling?; Video calling etiquette in general; Expectations on workload and working hours given the various personal domestic circumstances etc.
I hope our staff feel we are getting the balance of this right and being appropriately supportive, we are certainly trying.
Of course, working from home does introduce new features to office life and we are getting to meet colleagues’ families and pets in a way that wouldn’t have happened before.
There has also been a healthy rivalry and admiration of baking skills on our Teams ‘Kitchen’ chat.
I must acknowledge the group of staff who are currently furloughed, about 25% of our team. This was not an easy decision to take and we are currently topping-up to full pay for staff on temporary leave. With sales in sharp decline and some roles unable to complete their work, it was the only sensible decision to take this step. All of those involved have shown a great understanding of the decision, as have their colleagues who continue to work.
Resilience and the future
It would be foolish to make any predictions as there are so many unknowns. Like any business, we will struggle financially with an extended period of limited sales. There are some features of our business that I am glad we have, which will help give us the best chance to weather this storm:
- We publish fantastic books, that are highly sought after by our customers who seek them out even when buying options are reduced;
- Our team is resilient, adaptable and innovative and our staff are proving that they can overcome every barrier to keep the business running.
- We have two great distribution partners who are working hard behind the scenes to maintain the flow of our books.
- Some of the philosophy behind our business is helping us in these times: Our focus on online marketing and metadata, our commitment to ebook conversion and our enthusiasm for print-on-demand are just some examples of this. We have always had a focus on how the industry was changing, and it is standing us in good stead now.
What might we learn from this?
It is too early to yet take a step back and consider what we are learning from this period, but I do hope it will bring some positive change.
This time will help us examine what in our business is essential for success, and what might no longer be needed. It will give us new considerations for our culture and how we work; how best to bring the team together while allowing flexibility in working patterns and location. We will better understand what we need to be resilient going forward, which technologies we should continue to invest in and develop and what skills we need in greater proportions. It will ask us questions about the need in future to travel and it will improve our comfort with remote and video meetings. Some part of this latter point will link to the development of our sustainability agenda, a project we were quite focused on earlier in the year.
I look forward to being able to reflect on these changes, and others, once we are past the current period of restrictions, retail closures and risks to the business.