On Mar. 11, 2020, the PW management team announced that any employee who wanted to work from home was welcome to do so. I took a rather empty train into New York from Westchester County on Mar. 13 to finish putting out the print edition of the magazine. As I left the office that evening, I thought I would pop in the following week to pick up some items and get ready to work from home for a few more weeks. As it turned out, the next trip I made to New York was Feb. 27, 2021, to clean out my old office in preparation for PW moving a few buildings down on 23rd Street into slightly smaller space. We will be in our new digs, on the ninth floor at 49 W. 23rd St., Apr. 1.
The journey getting from Mar. 13, 2020, to April, 1, 2021, had plenty of twist and turns and unexpected developments. The first indication that we may be in for a bumpy ride came Mar. 20, as we were preparing to send the first issue done completely remotely to our Pennsylvania printer, when we were told at the last minute the printer was not sure it was an essential business and might be forced to close. In less than an hour, the printed received the government okay, and out went the issue.
The first full week of lockdowns was also one of intense reporting. We heard Amazon was focusing on shipping essential items, thus reducing book orders (and other nonessential items) for what they said should be a few weeks. Once it was confirmed that was no rumor, panic set in among many publishers looking at possibly their biggest customer putting books on the back shelf. Throw in wholesale closings of in-store shopping at brick-and-mortar bookstores, including Barnes & Noble, as well as early reports that even high-flying digital audiobook sales were beginning to suffer as commuting ceased, and things appeared dire.
In the first two months of the pandemic, PW wrote more stories through its print and digital vehicles than in any other two-month period. The news those first weeks was universally bleak. Then a strange thing happened. As we all waited each week for the BookScan numbers to come in, a friend at an indie publisher and I were e-mailing back and forth, expecting to see a collapse in weekly print sales—and a plunge did come. But it was brief, and unit sales soon rebounded, on their way to new highs. This is not to suggest 2020 was a great year for the business; as our reporting has found, there have been companies and industry sectors that were able to take advantage of the changes caused by the pandemic, others that have suffered deep losses, and still others have closed.
Before looking ahead to what 2021 may bring, we reached out to people in different parts of the book business, looking for anecdotes that recount a moment from the past year that crystallized for them how their work lives would change due to the pandemic. Responses are below.
“After a sales rep told me that small/literary books were going to get ‘slaughtered,’ I read an email update from Kris Kleindienst at Left Bank Books that said it was going to be much more difficult for her to bring in the kind of weird twos and threes that depend on handselling. Which I understand! But I only work on those kinds of books. Covid-19 is just another great force for homogenization and conglomeration in this business.” —Caroline Casey, independent book marketing strategist
“As so many observers have noted, it’s hard to recall distinct moments in a year with so few of the usual landmarks (miss you forever, BEA!), but the absurdity of our current work environment was brought home this winter when my three-year-old debuted a new and devastating impersonation of me. Headphones on for optimal Zooming, he sat at my desk (formerly our dining table), squinted at my laptop and said, “I just have to send one e-mail...” before mashing the keyboard with his hands and triumphantly announcing, “Sent!” Hope that will remain my worst-ever annual evaluation.” —Phoebe Kosman, director of marketing, publicity and key partnerships, Candlewick Press
“I was out for a late dinner (last meal inside an actual restaurant for over a year) when the news hit that Tom Hanks had Covid and the NBA had canceled the season. Right then, even though it was midnight their time, I contacted the editor and publicist to pull my author off of her tour. Just say no to Typhoid Mary of Covid for school children! (Author flew home, quarantined, was not sick.) Two days later we closed the office, but since our agency already had agents/staff located in New York, Chicago, Denver, Raleigh [N.C.], work life was strangely not impacted as video meetings and a cloud server were already our norm for over five years. Still, the Zoom “kitty-got-back” meeting moment amuses me greatly. Happens in almost every meet up!” —Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency
“The last normal week in New York was anything but. We all knew the virus was coming for us. That fact hung over a much anticipated event at the residence of the British Consulate—a showcase for British female entrepreneurs looking for U.S. investors. ‘I want to stay for the weekend, but I’m worried they’ll close the borders,’ one said, a wake-up moment. That evening is now a proxy for all the gatherings I’ve missed this year, along with its sparkly views and sparky conversations. When the bookish introvert in me stepped away from the cocktail chat, which had taken an edgy nervous turn, I found a hidden sanctuary wallpapered in Penguin classics images. An entire room dressed up as a paperback. If this was to be the last party for a while, then it was the perfect place to end the season.” —Jacqueline Deval, v-p, publisher, Hearst Books & HearstLab Scout
“When we were all sent home on March 12, I thought that we would be back to the office in a month or so. During the past year at home, it gave me time to reflect on how vital the daily conversation about books is for the publishing industry. We used to think that these conversations had to happen in person—at book signings or over coffee. Not being able to have these in-person conversations was challenging in the first few months, but it also opened new possibilities to connect in different ways. I can talk with someone over coffee on the phone, and I can attend more than one event in a night because everything is virtual. The conversations are still happening, just on a different timeline.” —Johanna Castillo, agent, Writers House
“When I think of the early days of the pandemic, I feel such gratitude for the team I get to work with. Every aspect of our work changed overnight. Among other things, we had to transition all in-person events (tours, media lunches, pre-sell events) to flawless virtual ones, and it felt like my team had been waiting to surprise me with their tech skills and unwavering patience in working under very stressful conditions. One particularly jarring welcome to our new way of life was during a taping of an author interview for a virtual media lunch: as soon as I began recording, my toddler ran into the room, made a beeline for the power strip, and cut the power to the internet.” —Marlena Bittner, public relations director, Flatiron Books
“In June, after George Floyd[’s death] and when the flood of antiracism and white supremacy books had begun, I went to the hardware store to buy metal shelving to store orders waiting for curbside pickup. We had packages everywhere, covering every surface and overflowing out of every box. We weren’t yet allowed to have customers in the store, so we didn’t care much about appearances, but it was nonetheless distressing that we looked like a warehouse, and a pretty unkempt warehouse at that. I just thought: this is the future—are we going to have to be Amazon?” —David Sandberg, co-owner, Porter Square Books, Cambridge, Mass.
“Months into the pandemic and following the surge of book sales sadly due to continued assaults on Black lives, I was frustrated and exhausted. Yet as a Black bookseller and manager, I was unwilling to step away from the day-to-day operations and conversations. Thinking I would escape the world of bookselling for an evening, I purchased a copy of Young, Gifted and Black, A New Generation of Artists. Learning about the Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collections’ mission to “collect community” and their focused approach in support of emerging Black artists shifted my perspective and provided a potential path forward in my world of bookselling. —Donna Wells, manager, children and teens department, Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C.
“I was surprisingly upbeat at the beginning of the pandemic, but within two months I was fully burned out from Zoom meetings, lack of social interaction, and the news. The week after the George Floyd protests, I burst into tears during a leadership meeting and shared my anger about the lack of diversity in publishing. I haven’t had much access to true joy in the last year, but I’ve used that productive anger to help reshape the goals of my company—a strange and unexpected gift that will carry me until I can access something sweeter again. —Jhanteigh Kupihea, senior v-p, publisher, Quirk Books
“In February and March last year, Skylark Bookshop was gearing up for the fifth Unbound Book Festival scheduled for April, processing multiple bulk orders of titles for the 70+ authors who were scheduled to speak at the weekend-long event. When the lockdown came, we repurposed our beloved shop floor into an order-processing warehouse. The books for the canceled festival were stacked up in one corner of the shop, one more reminder of how much everything had changed, and how much had been lost.” —Alex George, owner, Skylark Bookshop, Columbia, Mo.; founder and director, the Unbound Book Festival
“I left home for Inklings Bookshop, in Yakima, Wash., on Mar. 11 [where I] wrote 19 [purchase orders] with owner Susan Richmond. Three days later she gave me three more POs entirely composed of workbooks and stay-at-home activities. Janelle Smith of Wishing Tree Books in Spokane said she was not feeling well, probably a cold (turned out it was), but out of caution, we canceled our meeting. It was Friday the 13th and I met with [buyers at] the Well-Read Moose in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, for what would be my last in-store sales call for the next year.” —Kurtis Lowe, Book Travelers West commission sales rep, Seattle, Wash.
“When we celebrated our Grand Opening on Mar. 14, we had not yet received all of our books, but our display tables were brimming with new releases. Two days later, our lights were off for what we thought would only be a few weeks. Two weeks in, the display tables were sharing space with shipping materials. A month in, the display tables were shipping tables. That was when I knew that bookselling had changed. There is nothing about trying to create a customer base in the dark, on the internet, in the midst of a pandemic that remotely resembles handselling.” [The store opened for one day before shutting its doors to customers per Illinois Governor Jay Pritzker’s shelter-at-home orders.] —Mary Mollman, owner, Madison Street Books, Chicago
“Mar. 11 was the last live Literature Lovers’ Night Out program. We hosted Lisa See and were informed that she would appear at our event and one other, before being sent home from her book tour due to Covid. There were bottles of sanitizer everywhere, wrapped refreshments, and signs asking people to ‘refrain from hugs and handshakes with the author.’ That was the day that I knew that I would say goodbye to all the event planning I had done for the spring, and that no one knew if or when authors would tour again.” —Bookseller Pamela Klinger-Horn, host, Literature Lovers’ Night Out, a collaboration between two Minneapolis-area indies, Valley Bookseller and Excelsior Bay Books
“I had just returned to work post–maternity leave, planning the Loft’s second annual Wordplay book festival, when buzz of a virus started circulating. We were in an urgent position with the May 9 event, having already paid several nonrefundable deposits. But a colleague we call Jonestradamus (Chris Jones) anticipated Covid-19 was not going away. I emailed the 100+ authors invited to Wordplay and said something like ‘we’re going to pivot to virtual, whatever that means!’ We turned a one-day festival in Minneapolis into a five-week virtual smorgasbord kicking off in mid-April. It was beautiful and chaotic and hopefully implanted a love of reading in my kids, who were relatively quiet during our live sessions.” —Steph Opitz of the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, founding director of Wordplay.
“There is not just one moment that I can recollect how my work life changed. It has been more like 12 months of moments and still counting. I knew on Mar. 14, 2020, when I cleared customs at Newark Airport, a week earlier than planned, that starting Mar. 15, 2020, would be different for me. I am just waiting for the day when in-person events can resume and my perpetual jet lag returns. I miss all my customers, logistics partners, and publisher friends.” –Cindy Raiton, president, sales, Bookazine
“In early April 2020 my then four-year-old daughter marched over to me while I was on a video call. She had no pants on, was singing loudly, and she demanded that I wear an eye patch and eat some cotton balls she had painted pink, insisting that they were cotton candy. I knew at that moment that work-from-home life was going to be interesting and different (if not potentially deadly) for me. Zero attempts at social distancing are made, and I haven’t been to the bathroom alone in a whole year. —Beth Ziemacki, senior manager, subsidiary rights, HarperCollins Children’s Books
“I took photos of my cubicle on Mar. 12, 2020. It was supposed to be a joke; I definitely didn’t think I’d be looking at them a year later, weeping. That weekend I had decided to take a last-minute ride home offered by my uncle, who drove to our Queens apartment from Massachusetts and back. It was supposed to be two weeks, but it’s been a year now. I don’t miss the hour-long commute. I do miss seeing co-workers in person and our water-fountain chats. Oh, to be nostalgic about the water fountain. —Lisa Calcasola, marketing coordinator, HarperCollins Children’s Books
“The last year has been the hardest year to be a book publicist in the entirety of my six-year career. I had this moment, maybe in March or April, where all of the headlines seemed to be about ‘unplugging’ from the news to protect your mental health. Publicists can’t unplug from the news. In fact, I had to be superdiligent about staying on top of it, so I could pitch the one public health expert I was working with, who turned out to be a very important voice with regard to Covid spread. I had authors sending me op-ed ideas that were offensive and had to stave those off. While cumulatively it has been bad, I do remember a moment of being so angry that the only advice was to ‘unplug’ when that wasn’t an option for me.” —Megan Posco, publicity manager, Fortier Public Relations
“I was scheduled to go to a conference in Portland, Ore., the week of Mar. 8. There was no organizationwide ban on domestic travel yet, and as the conference got closer, the organizers didn’t cancel. Other colleagues started to back out, but I was torn: press ahead or concede the risk and lose the opportunity to meet prospective authors? The governor of Oregon banned all gatherings of more than 250 people mid-event [before I got there]. I think printed boarding passes for the flights I did not take might still be sitting on my desk.” —Marissa Koors, philosophy acquisitions editor, Wiley-Blackwell
“Grocery lines six feet apart. Friendship runs to share bulk paper products. Long drives to leaf peep. Alone. One week felt like a single day. But in my brownstone I reclaimed my voice. I sang out loud like no one was listening. Because no one was listening. The building was empty. Everyone had escaped to the ’burbs. I’d sing between Zoom calls. Read. Sing. Edit Sing. Pitch. Sing. Firecrackers. Sing. Helicopters. Sing. Sirens. Sing. Protestors. Sing. Songs were my spirit lifter. The Pointer Sisters was my favorite: “I know we can make it... yes, we can can” I sang myself through the pandemic.” —Regina Brooks, agent, Serendipity Lit
“The booksellers. That’s who I kept thinking about. The booksellers. Once I had my paper towels and my Beyond Burgers, once I was hunkered safely, and fortunately, in my little house outside the city, I did what many of us did–I started checking in and ordering from the booksellers. Rakestraw in Danville, Calif. Three Lives in the West Village. BookHampton in East Hampton, N.Y. Vroman’s in my hometown, Pasadena, Calif. Instead of despair, they told me stories of how busy they were, how swamped they were with orders like mine. I know this wasn’t the case for all booksellers in 2020, but when my orders arrived, the booksellers weren’t just delivering my next great read, but the first good news of the pandemic. A year ago, in those early bitter months, the booksellers were the first to shine a light forward for so many of us.” —David Ebershoff, v-p, executive editor, Hogarth & Random House; author of The 19th Wife and The Danish Girl
“When the New York Public Library closed during the wave of closures across the city, I knew that writing would not be the same for a long time. The Rose Reading Room at the main branch is an amazing place to think, research, and write. That outlet was gone. So were others that I prized. No more browsing at bookstores to scout the competition. No more meeting fellow writers for lunch. Home became the new workspace. Permanently, it seemed. When the NYPL reopens across the board, I’ll be the first one on line.” —David Krell, author and historian
“When we temporarily closed our stores at this time a year ago, it was unimaginable to us they would stay closed as long as they did. We have had to make difficult choices, laying off employees who had become friends and cutting vendor ties to save on costs wherever we could. Projects have been put on hold, but we have quickly launched other initiatives that helped boost our online business. We’ve reworked our brick-and-mortar stores for social distancing and to highlight all inventory, both new and old. There are continued challenges, but everyone’s hard work and flexibility will help keep us going.” —Kathy Doyle Thomas, executive vp, chief strategy officer, Half-Price Books, Dallas
“We had our biggest annual fund-raiser planned for March, with 25 authors from the East Coast coming to Spartanburg, S.C. (including two Hub City Press authors). It became obvious we couldn’t have the event after the CDC issued large-event guidance the afternoon before. We refunded tickets and schlepped hundreds of books from the event space back to the bookstore. Unfortunately, a few authors had already driven down to make a weekend of it, so we wound up having a small, distanced impromptu reading while folks safely picked up the signed books they’d ordered. It was a sadly sweet moment that would be the last ‘event’ either the press or bookshop would have in 2020.” —Meg Reid, director, Hub City Press
“There were four of us on staff at Inprint who were heading to AWP in San Antonio (March 2020) because we had a panel. Because of my preexisting condition—I am prone to respiratory infections—our director Rich Levy said I should not go, but then we all ended up canceling. Then on Mar. 9, 2020, we had a big reading with Louise Erdrich at a theater in downtown Houston. Typically, I would have been in and out of the theater all night, but I had friends in New York who were telling me how bad things were getting there, so I stayed out. I remember poking my head into the event and thinking, there is no way I could stay three, let alone six, feet away from these people. We are very much about in-person events as an organization and it wasn’t clear how we were going to be able to do our work. We have not had an in-person event since. At the start of this, we didn’t know how to remotely access our server, but we’re all skilled at running our events virtually now.” —Krupa Parikh, assistant director, Inprint Houston