In the space of two years, global work culture shifted at a remarkable rate. Four panelists, along with moderator Paul Bogaards of Bogaards Public Relations, looked around today's publishing landscape to assess what may return and what's gone for good.
Odom Media Management founder and literary agent Monica Odom was already working from home, expecting a baby, when the pandemic began. "I sold the most books of any year in 2020—and I'm still waiting for them all to publish," she said. Despite her productivity, she fought "to stay grounded amid the immense collective trauma we were all having, recognizing we were all humans doing this work." As an aside, she commented, "I did miss the editor lunches."
That sounds like a throwaway line, yet social distancing highlighted publishing's reliance on workplace culture. Bogaards suggested the pandemic put "a cap on industry fun," lowering morale among people who thrive on hard work and literary perks. "The social fabric seems to be fraying at the edges," Bogaards lamented.
"We're not having as much fun together, and that does take a toll," agreed Julia Sommerfeld, publisher of Amazon Publishing and founder of Amazon Original Stories. As remote work developed, she noticed the rise of "a strong online chat culture. The team is always pinging each other and trying to capture that casual conversation. We're missing the kind of osmosis that happens when we're all together."
St. Martin's Publishing Group president Jennifer Enderlin assured everyone that "the parts we liked best about it will find their way back." Enderlin looks forward to "the special lunch you have with an author who's in town and who gets to meet a few members of the team. It's the 'Tuesday night, another party' that won't come back." She added that Macmillan sponsors company-wide days off to combat burnout. ("I want to go back and work at St. Martin's now, based on all Jennifer is saying," Bogaards quipped.)
If coffee chats and side-by-side teamwork appeal to many, though, others would prefer never to darken the doorway of a conventional office space. "How do we go from 'the office is a fine place to work' to a categorical rejection of office life?" Bogaards asked the panelists.
"One of the good things to come out of the pandemic was this recognition that people can be at home and actually be very productive," said agent Anjali Singh of Ayesha Pande Literary, who launched a side business in lecture management and represented anti-racist educators while stuck at home during Covid. In pre-pandemic years, Singh recalled feeling "stigmatized when I had young children and wanted flexibility in my work life [because] it flew against corporate mores. Now you can read a manuscript pretty much anywhere."
The challenge, Singh said, is balancing "the mentorship that comes from being around employees with more experience, and the camaraderie that comes from being around employees at the same level." Amazon's Sommerfeld felt similarly: "Creative work can really benefit from the privacy and the concentration when working from home or in a mostly empty office," she said. "The hardest part is onboarding new people who don't have that [established office] shorthand."
Enderlin likewise believes in allowing "as much schedule flexibility as possible" and trusting her team. "Everybody wants to do a good job," she said. "When people get as much choice as possible, they're incentivized to make it work." Odom reminded the group: "As a millennial, being a digital nomad was the dream!"
Along with remote and hybrid work spaces comes the opportunity to hire from outside publishing's metro areas. When Bogaards asked the panel how to diversify publishing's workforce in a meaningful way, Odom responded, "I would love to have an agent that lives in New Orleans. Agents are frontline cultural gatekeepers," and hiring people outside New York is a way to access "region, tied to race."
Sommerfeld offered the example of Amazon Publishing's Seattle headquarters, which "has editors in Tennessee, Michigan, Maine, and California, as well as New York. It's been a great asset," she said. "Most authors and readers are not New York–based, and by having team members around the country, we have an opportunity to speak to our customers' breadth of experiences."
Outside hires require training and support too, and some of the panelists saw this moment as a chance for publishers to invest record profits in young and diverse staffers' careers. "We're bringing in a lot more staffers of color, but are we really changing the systems?" asked Odom.
When Bogaards asked the panelists whether employees should share more readily in publishers' profits, Enderlin explained that St. Martin's gave bonuses to every employee in good standing at the end of 2021, "from the most junior newest employee all the way up. We weren’t going to write a press release, we just did it."
"Good news should be shared," replied Bogaards, who hadn't known. "When PRH gave out bonuses to employees for 50 Shades, it was not a secret!"
Odom, who supported Enderlin's example, reinforced Bogaards's response. "If you were to make it public as something to celebrate, it would encourage other publishers: 'OK, guys, are you going to meet us there?'" Odom said. "Your positive influence allows for it to proliferate instead of stay within your company." She underscored how important profit-sharing may turn out to be, "especially for the younger folk who are resigning. Talks are happening for sure," she said, referring to collective bargaining and a burgeoning interest in labor organization and unions, both in the publishing industry and beyond.
"Historically in trade publishing, the expectation was that you would work from 9 to 5, then you would go to a reception, and then you would read at night," Bogaards observed. "The collectivizing generation is actually putting mile markers down. They say, I don't want to go home and read for four hours." Innovative community-building—even if it's happening from nationwide home offices—seems poised to change the industry for good.