This is the 2,000 post published in this blog. I suppose that’s a landmark of a sort. A mark of stick-at-it-ness at least. Not sure I have anything important to say to mark the occasion though. Hang in there! Ten years is coming up soon. As a man on the radio just said “May the fourth be with you”.

Remote working

Stephen Glaveski at Medium (link via Technology • Innovation • Publishing), reflects on working from home. He identifies five different levels of organizational efficiency for remote working, and suspects that most of us are just at step two. We are all working on it. Obviously some businesses are more suitable than others for remote working. Cutting hair remotely is clearly a bit harder than publishing books. In fact publishing books while out of the office seems superficially fairly straightforward — it’s the selling of them, the getting of them into the hands of customers that’s the hard bit right now. However, sales of print books are less awful than one might have expected. As reported by Publishers Weekly: “Between March 1 and April 4, demand spiked in such categories as outdoor skills (with print units up 74% over last year); medical history, including books on the 1918 flu pandemic (up 71%); games and activities (up 42%); and literary fiction (up 10%).”

There’s whole lot of gear grinding to be heard as a new supply chain for books evolves. Bloomberg Businessweek has a piece whose headline is more optimistic than its text, but attempts at continued existence are being made. Bookshop is doing great, as Wired tells us (link via LitHub). It is doing well, and doing good, having earned more than $1 million for the independent bookstores who benefit from its activities. But Bookshop is dependent on the book being in stock at Ingram, and up until a few weeks ago Ingram no doubt was stocking books with a bit of a wholesaler mentality, not a book retailer’s, so inevitably there are myriad publisher moves to fill in gaps. But the picture’s fuller than it was six weeks ago. In another few weeks, it’ll be transformed.

Now comes the acid test: will customers continue to use Bookshop in the long term even though they don’t give Amazon-style discounts? This was always the publishers’ concern: that Amazon would create a public perception that books were cheap and that people would refuse to buy unless they got their expected discount. That’s what lay behind that whole Big Five law suit and the evolution of agency pricing. The ebook enthusiasts who think agency pricing is a kind of plot against America need to consider why it is they are apparently willing to pay without complaint the going rate for online access and phone service (not to mention food and toilet paper) but find full price intolerable for an ebook. There are costs which have to be covered in the pricing of any product, and surprise, surprise, this applies to books too. But when we come back will most/many/some/any independent bookstores come back with us? Keep fingers crossed.

The other acid test: will all the planning work we are doing setting up online access for remote workers, developing expertise with Zoom-type meetings, getting on with things while not getting together — will all this mean that we wake up in a few months and realize that maybe we don’t need to hire all that expensive real estate to house our workers, that we can just make lots of them stay home and get on with their work? Maybe they can each visit the office once a week, or even once a month. I cannot imagine that almost every publisher is not thinking that they will be able to consider shrinking their real-estate footprint once we get past social distancing. And of course, having had that thought, can salary reduction be far behind? If they don’t have to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn can’t they live on less? My real fear is that many employers will feel emboldened to go the next step and lay off editors, production workers, sales staff etc., etc., and convert them into contract employees, thus saving on medial benefits, pensions and so on. You know someone’s going to try it on: indeed last week there was article in The Bookseller suggesting that UK publishers are having exactly these thoughts.