Guest Post: Publishing Quarantine – from Stephen Leach

We are pleased to be welcoming a guest post to the blog today, about (you guessed it) quarantine and publishing!

This post is written by my dear friend Stephen, who you may know as @SirTerenceBoot on Twitter, founder of The Lit Academy. He perfectly and succinctly sums up what it means to be adrift in publishing, both in and out of quarantine, so I simply had to share his words.

Comment below and do tweet Stephen your thoughts!

Last year – before the word coronavirus was part of our cultural lexicon and you could visit your local park without getting shouted at by a policeman – having formerly abandoned all hope of ever getting a job in publishing, I decided that in 2020 I’d give it another go. I’d worked in the industry on and off since graduating from university in 2014, mostly in internships followed by contract roles and the odd temporary cover, but never quite bedding in properly. It was a great few years and I had a great time doing it, but something just wasn’t clicking. Finally, I gave up and accepted that maybe it wasn’t for me – that no matter how hard I tried, this just wasn’t going to happen. But with a couple of years of experience in other sectors and some hindsight, I realised that publishing was where I wanted to be.

Fast forward a little bit. I moved to London in 2018 to do a master’s degree and reconnected with an old friend who’d moved here the year before. We made a plan to live together, but our respective housing contracts kept finishing at different times and circumstances kept getting in the way. Finally, we managed it: we found a great house with loads of space in north London. At the start of last month I moved everything in there. She had returned to her parents’ house in Birmingham the week before as the new place didn’t have internet and she needed it to work from home.

The day before she was due to travel back, the lockdown was announced, and I found myself alone. For the first time since moving to London, I had a house to myself and suddenly weeks of free time to write, cook, play video games, and catch up on my ever-growing pile of unread books. Living the dream! …apart from the mounting pandemic, the worry of an impending recession, and my rapidly-dwindling bank balance.

On reflection, there’s an air of the old monkey’s paw story about the whole situation.

I wasn’t worried initially. I’m not in the least bit bothered by spending long stretches of time alone. But this is quite different. Nothing prepares you for just how listless self-isolation makes you feel, or how ineffectual. When you’ve got responsibilities and things to get done, a couple of hours’ uninterrupted time in the evening feels like a treat. When you’ve got nowhere to go and nothing in particular to do, not so much.

Fast forward several weeks later. I have gained weight. I have finished precisely one book. My capacity to focus is in tatters. I can hardly concentrate enough to take in a 30-minute podcast, and watching all three episodes of ITV’s Quiz felt like a major accomplishment. The most notable achievement I have made in the last few weeks is, like seemingly all men in lockdown, to have grown a full beard for the first time ever.

And as for jobs? The Bookseller’s weekly email comes on Fridays. The list of jobs on it remains more or less the same. Most of them, for one reason or another, aren’t a fit. So my job search has pretty much stalled. If it was hard to get a job in publishing before, it feels ten times harder now. And that’s probably only going to continue from here on in.

Friends have concurred. It’s the hardest time to be creative right now, to focus on anything that isn’t the news. To not waste your day on your phone or laptop. Watching stupid videos and sharing memes. Deleting stuff from my online calendar so now the entire month of April is one massive empty screen. Hoping vainly that things will be back to normal by June 14th so I can go home for my parents’ birthdays and take them to the show I booked us all tickets for.

And, more than anything else, it’s a very hard time to not feel useless. I wish there was something productive I could be doing. If it wasn’t for the occasional email from the literary consultancy I set up a couple of years ago to keep my ties to the publishing industry alive, I think I’d have cracked already.

Luckily, publishers are still recruiting, even if it feels like it’s less than before. Based on the amount of people I’ve spoken to who bemoan the lack of innovative thinking from top management, the idea that the publishing industry as a whole will adapt to the pandemic seems more like wishful thinking, though I am given hope by the way many smaller and indie publishers are finding new and inventive ways to stay afloat. But it’s difficult not to feel like this is just one more obstacle in the way to anyone hoping to find their way into the industry (as if they needed it). It’s not encouraging. I just hope that whatever the case, the industry will make it through more or less intact.

Thank you Stephen!

Don’t forget to keep talking – that’s what we’re all here for after all.

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