As we took our first tentative steps into the uncharted territory of lockdown in March last year, I set out Penguin Random House’s initial response to the pandemic. It never crossed my mind that, at the start of 2021, we would be navigating a third period of national lockdown.
This new year is just a few days old. We have already witnessed an alarming surge in COVID cases, intense pressure on our health service, the all-too-familiar daily tragedy of a mounting death toll and a shocking assault on democratic institutions in the US. So it’s natural that many of us will be looking at the weeks and months ahead with some degree of anxiety and trepidation, in a state of lockdown that we all hoped was history.
If you are as frustrated as I am that our summer steps forward were followed by so many steps back, let me share a few reasons to be thankful and even mildly optimistic.
The first, of course, is the incredible global ingenuity, collaboration and dedication that is producing multiple vaccines and treatments. Though the timing is uncertain, for the first time we can see a clear path through the pandemic. (In time, incidentally, there will be vitally important books to be written about the triumph of science and scientists.)
The second is that, as dispirited as we are about entering yet another lockdown, we know what to do this time around. In the eye of the pandemic storm, the publishing industry demonstrated creativity, innovation and agility. At Penguin Random House we adapted our publishing schedule, pivoted our digital marketing, created new ways to reach readers online and transformed our internal ways of working. That our industry rose to the challenge is an achievement worth celebrating and for which we thank and applaud the heroics of all our colleagues, our warehouse and distribution teams, and our many bookseller partners. I also want to recognise and thank our authors who have been brilliant, at times ingenious, at finding creative solutions to reach readers.
The third is that the pandemic has given us the most powerful reminder of why we do what we do. For many of us, books provided a lifeline, a diversion and a lift just at the time when we needed those things most. We’ll need them all again in the coming months.
And that fundamental human need for stories and ideas underpins our fourth reason to be thankful. As tough as the past year has been, I am confident about both our own future prospects and those of the industry. I draw that confidence from the industry’s remarkably resilient performance in 2020 and from our own increasing investment in authors, new books and new formats. We believe deeply and profoundly in the long-term value of publishing – both in the economic and the social sense.
As we begin this third lockdown, we are extending some commitments that have been important to us through the crisis. The brutal impacts of this pandemic have fallen hardest on people and communities who are already disadvantaged or vulnerable. In view of our mission to ‘make books for everyone’, we have worked with our community partner Neighbourly to donate books to those in greatest need via homeless shelters and food banks. We are donating an additional 15,000 books to that programme, and a further 10,000 Ladybird books to families in need via the National Literacy Trust.
Hard as it is to look or plan beyond the immediate weeks and months, we have reflected on all we learned in 2020 and identified a few near-term priorities for Penguin Random House. We are focussing on the continued acceleration into an online world and prioritising the fast and reliable supply of books to readers, as well as driving discoverability of our authors. At the same time, we’ve all keenly felt the absence of high street bookshops during lockdown, and we must work together to protect the broader book ecosystem and diverse retail landscape, which is so essential to our cultural and social landscape.
2020 was an important moment of reckoning and reflection and I sincerely hope that inclusivity will continue to be front of mind for our industry. We must continue to inject energy and urgency and, at Penguin Random House, we’ll continue to focus on executing our accelerated inclusivity action plan. Similarly, 2020 underlined the need for business to step up as a force for good in society. I hope and expect that public/private partnerships will become more important as we look to find ways to address widening inequality.
I feel deeply grateful for the resilience of our industry, the enduring appeal of books and for the committed colleagues, authors and partners with whom we will weather the storm.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” the mole asks in Charlie Mackesy’s bestselling book. “Kind,” replies the boy. That quality, along with many others, will get us through to the other side of this crisis. I can’t wait to meet you there, in person.