In this post Tommi reflects on the unprecedented events of 2020 and how they have affected us as a business and as a team.
Well, what a strange year this has been! As England starts its new month-long series of restrictions, it’s a good time to look back on how this year has been for Multilingual Matters and Channel View Publications.
At the beginning of 2020, Multilingual Matters and Channel View Publications were looking at a good year of publications and a very healthy production pipeline of new materials. Following on from a year where sales had been quite depressed, we were seeing really good financial figures and the business was looking very healthy. We had two members of staff away on parental leave, but we were looking forward to welcoming them back in the summer and to really forging bravely into the future. Brexit loomed as a potential difficulty, and we were thinking about what steps we could take to make the business more environmentally friendly.
During a February vacation taking some friends to visit my home in Finland we had started to see an increased number of reports of coronavirus spreading, and the seemingly drastic measures taken in Wuhan to contain the virus as much as possible. It seemed like a sad situation, but such a long way away from us. I returned to my desk in early March and discussed with Anna Roderick whether we should start to consider our work-related travel to conferences, not really so much from a health perspective, but more because we felt it might just not be worth flying to the conferences if few people would attend. Then slowly the conference cancellations started coming in, and before long there was talk of what would happen if the UK government announced a lockdown. Every day brought different announcements, and it was getting very difficult to believe that anyone had any sensible plan at all. I found it almost impossible to concentrate on actual work, and we all speculated on when we might be told to work from home.
One evening while giving blood at my local blood donor centre, I sat and watched the news on the TV. Since our national government clearly wasn’t going to make a decision anytime soon, I typed a message out with one hand to my colleagues saying that “from tomorrow, we’ll work from home”. We all took our laptops home, and that was it. I expected it to be six weeks, or maybe two months. I did not expect that in November, eight months later, I would still be working from home and that I would have only seen my colleagues face-to-face a handful of times during that period. Had I known it would last this long, I would probably have suggested that we work in the office one last day, all have lunch together, and then go home, but at the time it seemed more sensible to break as many chains of contact as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, over the years our systems have been designed to allow homeworking and remote working while travelling, so the switch to working from home was technically not too difficult, and our team was pretty quickly coming up with strategies to make home working seem less lonely, including a shared 2.30pm break to listen to the same song, with each member of staff choosing the song on rotating days. We definitely have an eclectic taste in music across the whole team! Some of us had been working from home for a long time already, and so Sarah Williams and Anna Roderick were able to give us “newcomers” some tips and advice on how to organise ourselves, and enjoyed a more social atmosphere than before, now that us office workers began to understand the importance of regular contact!
About 10 days after we had decided to work from home, the government made a national announcement that we should all work from home and not leave our houses unless shopping for food, or for essential exercise once per day. All non-essential shops were to close, as were all workplaces that could not operate in a COVID-safe manner. Amazon stopped ordering books to focus on other product lines, and our two biggest wholesale customers closed their doors for an indefinite period. It was clear that this was not going to be a short, sharp shock and then back to business as usual. Together with the senior management team at Multilingual Matters and Channel View Publications, we took the decision that the two most important things that we could do were to focus on staff wellbeing, and to conserve as much cash as possible. We immediately stopped all longer print runs and switched to digital printing, and decided that we would delay sending the usual complimentary copies of the books. We also wrote to all of our authors asking for patience with our annual royalties payments. We asked that authors who were either self-employed, in precarious employment or otherwise in a financial situation where the money would make a difference to their daily lives identify themselves to us so that we could prioritise payments to them, and that otherwise we would delay payments to a time when cashflow would allow. Our authors and editors responded with such warm and supportive messages. Many people wrote to offer words of encouragement and support, to insist that others were prioritised, and a good number even offered to donate their royalties to us this year. To all of you, I would like to extend a very heartfelt thank you from the whole Multilingual Matters and Channel View Publications team. The financial breathing room that this gave us was vital. But even more vital was the psychological boost that we got from feeling that we were genuinely valued as part of the community.
As the weeks went by, the news was mixed. One of our biggest wholesale customers declared bankruptcy, leaving us with a considerable bad debt. Fortunately, around that time the other wholesale customer started to re-open their warehouse, and orders began to come in, albeit at a much reduced volume. At the same time we started to see the sales of ebooks to libraries increase, which gave us some confidence that we weren’t going to be facing a complete halt in income. We were able to start sending out complimentary copies again, and we started to pay royalties. By the end of July we had caught up and paid all outstanding royalties where we knew we had payment preferences recorded. We also saw an increase in the number of manuscript submissions and so we felt that the decision to keep working rather than to go on furlough was definitely the right one. We have been innovative, arranging webinars and events on Zoom to promote the books from authors who have not been able to show off their work at conferences. Expect to see more of this over the coming months as we plan to introduce more of our publications in this manner.
We arranged a few social events, including the ubiquitous Zoom “pub quiz” that has been a lockdown experience for most Brits, afternoon drinks, and even a shared Devon cream tea, which Sarah Williams organised for us one week. In the summer we managed to meet face-to-face on one occasion, with seven of us sitting around a large pub table at a time when social restrictions had been lifted temporarily. I still hold onto that lunch as one of my favourite lunches of the year! Although I certainly miss seeing my colleagues every day in the office, I think we have managed as well as is possible to keep a sense of togetherness going, which will prove vital as we now head towards a more difficult winter lockdown.
What will the coming months bring? I think February 2020 shows that we cannot take anything for granted, but equally so does March, April and May. It has been a much tougher year so far than I could ever have imagined when it started, but it has not been as bleak as we thought it would be at some times during April and May. We still expect that Brexit will cause some headaches for us as trade regulations and rules around exporting change. We do not yet know how bad the winter spread of coronavirus will be, or when we might be able to have more normal interactions with each other. Conference travel and bookfair travel seem a very long way away still. We can only imagine that with the levels of financial intervention that many countries have had to take over the past year, budgets of all publicly funded institutions will be strained, and this will no doubt have an impact on us in the future. But we are financially much more stable today than we were in February, and I believe that we are also more resilient as a team.
I could not be prouder of how my colleagues have responded to the difficulties and challenges this year has produced, and how we have still managed to find positives and celebrate successes. I strongly believe that this year has shown that we can overcome some really difficult situations when we, both in-house and as a wider community, work together to make sure that we look after each other’s interests.