Covid-19 has radically transformed the ways people live and work. For those who are in the business of making children’s books—which are as much art objects as works of fiction or nonfiction—the pandemic has forced art and design professionals to both reevaluate their workflow and assess what has been lost and gained in these unpredictable times.

Many who PW spoke with detailed the dramatic changes to the day-to-day of producing a book and the shift to working remotely. “When we moved to a work-from-home environment, we had to figure out very quickly how to maintain a level of quality of our books while limiting the number of touchpoints between those objects,” says Raymond Colón, director of production at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

When physical art is involved, Martha Rago, v-p and executive creative director at Random House Children’s Books, mails original art to China from her local UPS office to be scanned and separated into color proofs, instead of relying on the production department to ship the materials from the office. “Some of our artists have shipped artwork themselves from their homes also,” she says. “All this seemed a bit scary at first, but happily, it works!”

“It used to be a special time, to spread out artwork across our huge library table and to share it with everyone in the office and cheer for the illustrators,” says Kerry Martin, director of art and design at Holiday House. “We have had some creative backyard meetings to review art and deliveries from an editor who lives in Westchester to a production director whose significant other lives nearby.”

Reviewing color proofs has been the biggest adjustment, according to several publishers we spoke with. At home, bright, natural sunlight is best for reviewing proofs, so Amy Bowman, director of production of brands and four-color trade books at Random House Children’s Books, chases the light—often reviewing proofs in her backyard and dreading cloudy days. “I might have to wait all week for one sunny day to review proofs!” she says. “The amount of proofs and book samples delivered to my house is staggering. I have four other people in my production team, and I see proofs and press sheets for most of the books they work on, as well as an advance copy of every book as it completes. I have many boxes of material sitting in my house.”

Martha Hanson, v-p of production at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, says that her team has been color-correcting picture books by comparing F&Gs from sales to those from publicity. “[We worked with] one of our printers to standardize a procedure to [share] high-res printed materials via Zoom. It’s the closest we’ve been able to come to color-correcting [as it was] in the lightroom at the office.”

Some of these changes to process and workflow have been beneficial, and will likely become industry standard as the publishing world emerges from the pandemic. Routing proofs digitally, for example, “saves time and the cost of an additional set of hard copy proofs to be used for routing purposes, and it allows people to view the proofs from anywhere,” says Bowman. Still, others like Colón believe that these ingenious adaptations that have allowed professionals to make books from home are not ideal. “Though we have been able to maintain a level of quality, those adaptations that still involve physical objects are not the most efficient and would benefit from a shared environment,” he says.

Missed Connection, New Connections

“Though the benefits of the new workflow are clear, it’s been equally clear that the absence of face-to-face interactions represents a significant loss,” says Dan Potash, v-p and creative director at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. “Working from home has magnified the incalculable value of the impromptu meeting, the in-the-elevator exchange, the outside-my-doorway-lunch-plan-turned-brainstorming-session, or spontaneous detour to a designer’s office to tell them how impressed I am with their work. It’s both the obvious and the subtle power of these moments that are missing these days.”

His lament is echoed by many of his peers. “I’ve struggled to create a space and time for more casual interactions, such as birthdays or after-work drinks,” Colón says. “Bringing in cupcakes or bagels for the team has not been easy to adapt.”

Some teams have accepted those constraints, and tried to cultivate camaraderie in creative ways. “We are a close-knit group and not having in-person proximity and opportunity for day-to-day interactions is something I think we all miss,” says Jennifer Tolo Pierce, design director of children’s publishing at Chronicle Books. “Although we can’t meet in-person, we have found other ways to connect.” Her team’s monthly meet-up, which took place on a favorite picnic table on the San Francisco Bay, is now a weekly designated Zoom time to celebrate milestones, share projects or inspirations, and otherwise connect. “It’s an optional meeting so as not to add stress or interfere with deadlines, but it’s a standing invitation and a time I look forward to every week. Working at home has ultimately fortified our connections with each other and with our teams.”

As removed as remote video meetings can be, they have also created an intense, focused forum for her team to come together during this time of social unrest and to face and tackle the inequities within the industry, says Elizabeth Parisi, v-p and creative director at Scholastic Trade. “Our entire trade team, across three divisions, has created BIPOC mentorship programs for publishing hopefuls, open submissions for BIPOC writers, and a book club to discuss race and anti-racism themes,” she says. “There is something wonderful in seeing a sea of determined faces, all passionate and focused and together in the importance of our efforts. It could be that sitting around a table in a conference room would not have brought us together in the same way, with the same sense of unity and purpose.”

Balancing Work and Life

As in other industries, professionals in publishing have had to recalibrate their work and personal lives.

For staffers with young children, often schooling from home, there have been positives and negatives to the current arrangements. “My work and home life are very blurred,” says Martin. “I used to be able to leave the office at 5 p.m. every day and rush to school pick-up. Now I sometimes need to wrestle with my six-year-old to let me finish a conversation with an editor.” On the other hand, Jessica Handelman, senior creative director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books & Media, has been able to spend more meaningful time with her daughters, “taking them to school or helping with an assignment mid-afternoon, which prior to this period was trickier at times,” she says. “My five-year-old has helped to color-correct proofs—she had strong opinions about the [color] pink and a unicorn in Oh Look, a Cake!—and is learning how a book is made, giving early reviews for Lost and Found, which has been a wonderful bonding experience.”

Flexible work-from-home arrangements are likely to become more prevalent post-pandemic, most believe. “Some folks are really thrilled to save on the commute, so long as they can work effectively,” Handelman says. “As a manager I’ve already seen some of the benefits of that flexibility.” It’s clear to Rago how much value there is in having her team in one location, but there is also value “in giving people the space apart and flexibility to focus and maintain a good work-life balance,” she says.

With the adjustment to virtual meetings no longer seeming odd or inconvenient, Parisi assumes many of her colleagues will adjust their schedules to be split between home and the office. “More importantly, perhaps we could cast a wider net in future hires of employees and interns to include those living outside [New York City],” she says. “They would not need to relocate to this expensive town, and that would create wonderful opportunities for young people wanting to enter the publishing field.”

Books in Hand

There has been a learning curve figuring out how to best work from home, says Danielle Carnito, art director at Lerner Publishing Group. But once she’s enmeshed in a project, everything else falls away. “Whether it’s a process question or a book design project or a book I’m helping another designer with, I’ve learned that making books really is a comfort for those of us who do so for a living,” she says.

For Tolo Pierce at Chronicle, working from home has emphasized how much she loves the physical qualities of creating books. “I miss seeing ink on paper and holding the finished books in my hands,” she says. “I just received some of my first samples of books that went to print during the early days of working from home, and I was practically crying with happiness as I flipped through the books. It never ever gets old, seeing the books in their final physical form.”