Before, During and Now

Anne Dolamore, Vice President of LDE London, is co-founder of Grub Street Books. The publishing world in the UK was hit hard especially at the beginning of Covid-19. Here Anne writes of the ups and downs of the past 6 months.

I was in Australia on a business trip at the beginning of February. Sydney was deluged with the most rain it had had in thirty years. This put out all the remaining forest fires but then caused widespread flooding throughout New South Wales. The fire fighters, who the previous weeks and months had been full-on tackling the blazing countryside, were now  battling the aftermath of one of nature’s other destructive elements. It all seemed so bizarre and unnatural. Little did we know!

News was just starting to filter through about the virus in China and a few cases had been reported in the UK. It didn’t seem a big deal as we enjoyed some sun in Adelaide. Flying home via Abu Dhabi we were amused to see quite a number of people sporting face masks, and wondered why on earth they were wearing them. By the time we got back to the UK the number of cases were still only around a dozen.

We were just a couple of weeks away from the London Book Fair, to which tens of thousands descend annually from every corner of the globe. Europe was now in the grip of the pandemic. The prospect of being cooped up with thronging crowds suddenly didn’t seem such a good idea. Many of us started lobbying Reed exhibitions to cancel. They were obdurate: it would go ahead. It ran right up to the wire and was only finally called off days before it was due to start.

The start of the following week, and relieved not to be holed up in Olympia, our assistant came in to work and announced she suspected her mother, who she lives with, had the virus. It turned out she did and even now has not got back her sense of smell. Horrified I sent her home immediately and wiped every surface with disinfectant. I then called our IT guy and asked him how quickly we could set up so all the staff could WFH. He managed it in two days.

For two weeks we worked that way and suddenly discovered something called Zoom. But then came total lockdown.

All the bookshops worldwide were closed or closing. We had nowhere to sell our books. What was the point in going on publishing if we had no route to customers? Amazon, our biggest customer by far, had stopped ordering general books as they had deemed them non-essential. They were concentrating on toilet rolls and hand sanitisers! So we put our entire publishing programme on hold and furloughed the staff.

The future looked very grim, our income had all but dried up.

My husband and I were going in to the office every day to keep things ticking over, which got us out of the house and provided some semblance of normality.

Then, to our huge relief after a month or so Amazon started ordering books again.  Small numbers to start but then at almost pre-Xmas levels.

Everyone was at home and having to cook, so demand for all our cookbooks, gathered momentum.  And many of our classics, especially our hardback editions of Elizabeth David sold out.

It looked like people were taking the opportunity either to embark on learning cooking skills or honing rusty ones.

The staff remained on furlough for three months but now that physical bookshops have reopened, they have returned to our offices. They were keen to come back for a change of scene and the companionship. There is only so much Zooming we can take!

Here we are almost five months on, poorer and exhausted but thankfully, unlike so many unfortunate businesses, especially in hospitality, with a company still afloat.

So I didn’t get the opportunity to learn a new language, learn to quilt or train to run 5K but in the absence of staff I DID finally have to get to grips with Excel spreadsheets. And with our publishing programme for this year and probably next shot to pieces in terms of scheduling, I have found joy in my new mantra of ‘que sera, sera’.

Anne Dolamore is the Publisher at Grub Street Publishing and commissions the cookery books

Follow her on Twitter @adollarmore

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