With Labor Day only five weeks away, it has become clear that a substantial number of publishers, both in New York City and elsewhere, will not be returning to their offices in anything resembling full force before 2021. Moreover, organizers of a few industry events set for early next year have already announced they will be moving them from in-person to online. PubWest, for one, announced that its annual conference, originally planned for February 4–6 in Denver, will be virtual.
Those developments follow decisions to hold many fall 2020 publishing events online. All of the fall regional bookselling shows, which some had speculated could mark the return of in-person meetings, have gone virtual. BISG canceled its annual meeting—which had originally been planned for spring but moved to September 11 in New York City—and replaced it with a series of online programs, which began July 28 and will conclude on September 11 with its awards ceremony and a keynote address by Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt. Last week, the Brooklyn Book Festival said it will move its September 28–October 5 fair online. The National Book Awards will also be a virtual event, set for November 18. In the weeks ahead of the awards ceremony, the NBA will hold a series of digital programs, beginning October 20 with its 5 Under 35 event, which recognizes emerging fiction writers.
In a PW survey of New York City publishers in early June, most anticipated that they would begin bringing their employees back to their offices shortly after Labor Day. That is not the case now. Naperville, Ill.–based Sourcebooks was the first publisher to announce it is giving its staff the option to work remotely until January. Macmillan announced that its office at 120 Broadway in New York will officially open on or after Jan. 11, 2021. In the interim, beginning August 3, the company is offering limited early access to its Downtown Manhattan office, on a trial basis, for employees who have requested it. Both the early access period and the larger reopening will be done in accordance with the requirements of the CDC and national, state, and local governments, a spokesperson said.
Simon & Schuster is following the lead of parent company ViacomCBS: in a memo last month, CEO Bob Bakish wrote that, though at one point he thought some employees throughout the company could be back in their offices by August, “at this point, we are assuming the majority of employees will not be returning to U.S. offices this year.” Bakish noted that Viacom/CBS’s employees have proven “how well they can work remotely,” adding, “Given the continued trajectory of the virus, we believe having fewer people commuting and gathering is best.”
All publishers are working to balance the safety of their employees with a desire to return to some form of normalcy. For the most part, however, the uncertain course of the pandemic has made companies reluctant to move too quickly to fully reopen their offices, particularly as questions surrounding mass transit and childcare remain unresolved. “We are not going to put anybody’s health in jeopardy by rushing the reopening process,” one company executive said; that sentiment was echoed by all publishers contacted by PW.
To prepare for bringing back employees, one company described some of the changes it has made: new protocols for lobby screenings, improved circulation and air flow, new foot traffic patterns and floor plan adjustments, and new policies regarding mandatory PPE and social distancing.
A number of New York publishers said they will adopt a phased reopening, with several noting they expect to begin by having about 10% of their workforces return in the fall, though one company said as much as 50% of its staff could be back before the end of the year. Two publishers told PW they hope to begin bringing workers back in a limited fashion starting in October, adding that they would likely offer employees the option to work remotely if they do not feel safe returning to their offices. A couple of other houses said they are concluding employee surveys and will make reopening decisions after examining the results. As one publisher noted, “All options are being taken into account.”