Connecting a community of readers in a time of crisis

An open letter from Tom Weldon, CEO of Penguin Random House UK.

Tom Weldon

This past week, we’ve witnessed the most dramatic changes to day-to-day life that most of us have seen in our lifetimes. This crisis, and its often devastating consequences, has profoundly touched and affected each and every one of us, and the reverberations will be felt long after we make it through the other side.

As a company, the outbreak has obviously had a significant effect on the way we work on a day-to-day basis, and protecting the health and wellbeing of our colleagues has always been our most important priority.

We know that in difficult times people have turned to books – to inform, entertain, escape, and comfort. The nature of this particular crisis, with country-wide self-isolation and school closures, means books are needed more than ever. 

So, I wanted to let our own community – our readers, writers, illustrators, booksellers and partners in the UK – know about our response to this crisis. 

Our readers: making books for everyone

At Penguin Random House UK, our mission is simple but powerful: We make books for everyone, because a book can change anyone.

This public health emergency, while being the most powerful reminder of what’s most important in our lives, also prompts us to consider how we fulfil our mission in a time of crisis. That is about sustaining our mission in the long-term, and about providing access to our books to people who need them most in the short-term.

From livestreamed author events such as ‘At Home with Penguin’, a chance for readers to connect with our best-loved authors, to dedicated content on this website, we will be even more creative and imaginative about how to connect with readers during this time.

We will make our books accessible to those in greater need, focusing our efforts on the isolated and vulnerable, and families who are relying on food banks. We’ll be working in partnership with social enterprise Neighbourly to re-distribute books to grassroots community causes across the UK. 

Our authors: nurturing talent

Authors are the lifeblood of our business. Here you can read our ideas about ways you can support them virtually, but tangibly.

In the meantime, we continue our efforts to find a new generation of talented writers and storytellers. So, for example, we are maintaining our commitment to WriteNow, our flagship programme to find, nurture and publish voices from communities under-represented on the nation’s bookshelves. The programme remains open and we will hold a digital workshop for 150 successful applicants in July to learn more about how to get published.

In time, across fiction and non-fiction, authors will have a special role to play in helping us all to make sense of the epidemic, to understand its causes and its remedies, to document our reactions and their effects. Our commitment as a publisher is to find the most compelling, most important stories and insights about this remarkable moment in human history and to bring them to the widest possible audience.

Our partners: supporting the book trade

Bookshops are a national and local treasure. They contribute to the economy, inspire conversation and discovery, and are part of the fabric of their communities. While the public health emergency must take absolute priority, it is hard to see these businesses close their doors at the very moment when readers want their help to find a great book; to help them understand the crisis, escape it, entertain or educate children or simply pass the time.

As you can see here, many are going the extra mile to connect with readers even when their doors are closed. If you can find a way to support your local bookshop now, please do.

We are coming together with partners and colleagues across the industry to support and protect our publishing ecosystem and retail landscape. We are in active conversations with the Booksellers Association to discuss practical solutions for supporting our retail partners.

We know that independent booksellers have been hit particularly hard by this crisis. This is one initiative we are supporting in partnership with the Book Trade Charity by pledging to match any donations supporting booksellers in the UK and Ireland who have been affected by the impact of the virus, up to £50,000. 

Our communities: supporting parents, librarians, teachers

For parents, librarians and teachers who are navigating the impact of school and library closures, we will help them to engage, inspire and inform children and young adults of all ages through our books and authors.

Ladybird and Puffin Schools are providing free resources and content to support home learning for primary school children. We’re also making resources and videos easily accessible to partners such as not-for-profits like The National Literacy Trust, as well as organisations such as the BBC, Peanut and Twinkl to widen reach.

We’re also ensuring that the magic of storytime continues at home for families everywhere with Puffin Storytime, where we’ll be collaborating with our authors and illustrators to create new story and drawalong moments online.

For older students, our Penguin Talks programme connects young people with the world’s leading writers and thinkers from Michelle Obama to Margaret Atwood to Stormzy. We already have a wealth of free content and resources from previous Talks, designed around the PSHE curriculum, available on our website. Over the coming months we will host new remote livestreamed Talks to add to this collection.

And we’ve adapted our approach to volunteering to enable colleagues to give up to three hours of work time a week to support people affected by the crisis, whether that’s helping out a vulnerable neighbour in their community, volunteering remotely for a charity, or responding to the government’s call for NHS Volunteer Responders. 

For the communities who care about book publishing and our company’s role in this special industry, this is our initial response. Events are moving fast and our approach will need to evolve, and we will provide updates along the way. 

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