By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Trust Productive People To Define the Environment’Our ongoing Coronavirus Worklife series has looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on world publishing firms from Greece and a literary agent in Cyprus to an agency chief in herd-immunity hub Sweden and a publisher in the profoundly hit Italian market.
Today (April 29), we hear from one company in three markets.
Amazon Publishing, the 16-imprint trade house, has major divisions in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. And we’re pleased to be able to put our questions to the company’s leadership seated in each market.
- Publishing Perspectives readers are familiar with Mikyla Bruder, the Seattle-based publisher of Amazon Publishing, whose “coronavirus worklife” includes the supervision of a 12-year-old taskmaster.
- Eoin Purcell, the head of Amazon Publishing UK, is known to our readership, both for his work with APub in London and for his previous career work with Dublin’s New Island Books. Purcell’s comments will introduce you to the special attractions of baking for many publishing professionals.
- And Friederike Diaz Ortega is the head of Amazon Publishing Germany, which has its headquarters in Munich. From Diaz Ortega, we learn that there are cocktails being named for the Amazon leadership principles.
One of the most interesting comments comes from Bruder, who knows from her own executive purview that a stigma still exists in many workplaces around the idea of employees working from home. “It’s deeply silly and outdated,” she says, “to think that the best way to know if someone is working hard is to watch them do it.”
As we reported, Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle by March 4 had asked all of its roughly 50,000 employees who could work from home to do so. At the time, the measure was thought to be one implemented for the month of March. As Becca Savransky is reporting at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Gov. Jay Inslee has announced today that Washington’s lockdown order will remain in place beyond May 4, without an end date determined.
On the US East Coast, a similar advisory for employees in New Jersey and New York would follow within a week.
Seattle and Inslee’s Washington state are being credited with a quick response to initial cases in a nursing home there. By moving fast to such mitigation measures, the area has managed a rate of 14,070 cases and 801 deaths, as compared to New York’s epic struggle with 396,158 cases and 23,474 deaths and New Jersey’s tallies of 116,264 cases and 6,770, in Worldometer’s tallies at this writing. The United States, overall, stands at a total of 1,064,194 cases and 61,656 deaths.
Germany, at this writing, shows 161,539 cases and 6,467 deaths, and is becoming an international test market this week, as Emma Thomasson writes for Reuters, with some multinational chain retail outlets trying out cautious pandemic safety procedures.
And the UK reports 165,221 cases and 26,097 deaths—with Boris Johnson to lead a news conference Thursday (April 30) not yet ready to ease restrictions, which are to be reviewed May 7, per BBC’s report.
‘Something I Strangely Miss’
We open our triangular exchange with Bruder, Purcell, and Diaz Ortega, asking the question we put to many of our interviewees in the series, about how various elements of their work normally are set up—so we can better understand the changes in the pandemic.
Mikyla Bruder, Seattle: I am currently sitting in my guest room in West Seattle, at a folding table that has become my temporary desk. It’s a gorgeously sunny day, and I have a view of the children’s park right beside our home, and of the jungle gym swathed in yellow caution tape.
Normally on such a day, I’d be in my office in our building on Amazon’s South Lake Union campus, in an energetic neighborhood buzzing with many restaurants and sidewalks crowded to the brim with Amazonians. And, on such a day, normally, this park outside my home would be overrun with small children shouting and laughing as they get their outdoor playtime in before lunch and nap time.
In my role as publisher, I oversee Amazon Publishing’s global business, publishing across a variety of genres including literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, memoir, romance, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, mystery, thriller, true crime, science fiction, fantasy, young adult fiction, and children’s picture books. As such, I participate in anywhere from a half-dozen to more than a dozen meetings per day, and now these meetings are spent in front of my laptop, rather than scattered across various conference rooms on the South Lake Union Campus.
This morning, I had a series of one-to-one meetings, which I would normally take in my office, and I’m congratulating myself at having taken them in the alley behind my house, pacing from one end of the block to the other (much to the irritation of the neighborhood dogs). It felt so good just to be outside. I’ve definitely had to be much more intentional about getting up and moving, including scheduling small chunks of time for a walk and an odd little family calisthenics routine every day—jumping jacks, high kicks, toe touches, sit-ups, push-ups, etc. We actually have come to really look forward to it!
Friederike Diaz Ortega, Munich: Amazon Publishing’s German team publishes books under five imprints: Edition M (crime and thriller); Tinte & Feder (contemporary and historical fiction); Montlake Romance; 47North (science fiction and fantasy); and Topicus (nonfiction).
Our local team of editors and marketers works closely to examine the potential of submitted manuscripts and decides jointly which would fit for our program and appeal to our readers. After acquisition, we work together to develop marketing plans and manage the success of a title throughout its lifecycle.
Our Munich-based team usually spends most of our working hours in the office to make those in-person meetings and discussions as easy as possible. We are an international publisher and also spend time strategizing with international colleagues remotely, usually via video conference.
Team members usually spend one day per week working from home, reading manuscripts or writing documents.
Eoin Purcell, London: In the UK, we’re publishing books under five imprints: Little A (literary fiction and nonfiction); Lake Union Publishing (contemporary and historical fiction); Thomas & Mercer (mystery and thriller); 47North (science fiction & fantasy); and Montlake Romance. We’re normally located in the same office, sitting with other books teams at Amazon UK HQ in Shoreditch, London.
“Walking around with laptop in hand seeking an empty flex room for a meeting is something I strangely miss.”Eoin Purcell, Amazon Publishing UK
In-person meetings in the office are a big part of our day and the simple routine of walking around the floor with laptop in hand seeking an empty flex room for a meeting is something I strangely miss in this different way of working.
We’re super-lucky with the office location, very close to both Boxpark and Shoreditch Market, so lunches can be exciting trips to very tasty pop ups. Which means it’s helpful to be on one of the higher levels of the building: we can make up for excessive lunches by walking up the stairs and avoiding the escalators.
We’ve been quite a flexible team for some time with several team members working from home one or two days a week, so we often have multiple audio or video conference calls with them as well as with our European and US-based colleagues per day.
Publishing Perspectives: What is your work situation now?
MB, Seattle: The Amazon Publishing team is a global one. Many of us are working from home across the Seattle area, but we have teams in New York, London, Munich, and team members in many more cities across the globe, so we are accustomed to communicating remotely using email, chat, phone, and video conferencing, and we’re practiced in accommodating different time zones and schedules.
“I’ve been notified of many important family affairs during apparently less-important meetings, such as an alarmingly large spider in the living room.”Mikyla Bruder, Amazon Publishing
I’m grateful that Amazon was so proactive in sending its workforce home early on—long before schools closed and even before shelter-in-place orders came from local governance—and that we were already so well equipped to work from home.
We all have laptops, headsets, and other gear that makes virtual connection as seamless as possible. We also found that our culture of back-to-back meetings was a bit much in this new work-from-home scenario—with no opportunity to move from one place to another. So, we’re now encouraging folks to shorten meetings by 5 to 10 minutes to allow for quick breaks.
I find that our teams are as energized as ever in our mission to connect books and readers, and everyone has been diving deep and coming up with innovative new ways to do what we do. Our marketing team has launched a series of video programs on social media designed to connect our authors and readers from the comfort of their own homes.
Each week, we’re releasing three videos featuring different Amazon Publishing authors, including: #WritersBlock, where authors spark creativity by providing readers with writing tips and tricks, along with a prompt to get started; Authors@Home, a weekly variety-show style video that includes authors providing a tour of their office, answering questions from their fans and hosting a reading from their latest novels; and on our Instagram channel, we’re going live once a week with a hosted conversation between various authors and their editor.
FDO, Munich: We followed our colleagues in other locales who moved to a full work-from-home setting earlier in March, so we were quite prepared. People were able to take home all of the required equipment, like monitors and chairs, to ensure that they have a safe and comfortable workplace.
I was impressed how the team stepped in for each other to make the transition happen quickly and smoothly. For example, colleagues with access to a car helped others carrying home their equipment, and we quickly found ways to share relevant information for technology troubleshooting while working from home.
EP, London: Our desk spaces are evolving their own personalities, probably more reflective of individuals’ personalities than any office space can.
One of team members moves around her house from time to time and in one room has an impressive picture of a dodo on her wall. I think that’s my favorite background so far.
We have several keen bakers on the team—which must be something of a publishing cliché—many of whom share their experiments and favorites when they can. The baking continues apace in our work from home times, but now we don’t get to taste the sourdough loaves, banana breads, or jam tarts that our colleagues bake.
Publishing Perspectives: What are the key challenges in working this way?
MB, Seattle: I keep my meeting schedule posted outside the door of my home office, but let’s just say that my 12-year old isn’t as respectful of a closed door as my colleagues are.
He mostly remembers to not barge in, but rather takes to passing multiple notes under my door. I’ve been notified of many important family affairs during apparently less-important meetings, such as an alarmingly large spider in the living room, or a disappointing lack of delicious snack options.
FDO, Munich: We also constantly stay in contact in our team chat room.
This is helpful to stay connected with each other, to share questions and updates, and—also important—some fun stuff like cocktail recipes named after the Amazon leadership principles for the next happy hour or tips to entertain your children or yourself while at home. One of my favorite entertainment tips this week was the streamed “Amazon Live” show with Alicia Keys.
We unfortunately didn’t get to meet and connect with our authors, agents, and readers at Leipzig Book Fair, scheduled for March but canceled in the outbreak. We replaced in-person meetings from that trade show with video-conferencing and phone calls, and we’re engaging with our readers via social media instead, for example on our German Amazon Books Instagram channel. However, of course this doesn’t fully replace personal interactions and we look forward to picking these up once as the restrictions are loosened.
EP, London: As the risk of the coronavirus outbreak became more urgent in the UK, we were dealing with so many unknowns and contingencies that it was more important than ever to get off email and onto the phone, especially with our international colleagues in the US, which was about a week ahead of us in terms of impact on daily life. Using shared documents reflecting real-time updates was important so that everyone had access to the latest developments.
In a lot of ways, as crazy as this pandemic has been, we’re very lucky to be alive in a time when tools for collaboration across huge distances exist and are so stable.
What’s also been challenging is accepting the disappointment of canceled plans we were really excited about, for instance, our plans to feature The Boy Between, a memoir co-authored by Amanda Prowse and her son Josiah Hartley, at the London Book Fair this year. The book is about Josiah’s struggle with mental health and we’d planned to host a “relaxation zone” for attendees to use to decompress from the stimuli of the fair in honor of their inspiring story. Because we also had to cancel our LBF cocktail party, we missed meeting up with our talented and friendly authors, agents, and colleagues from around the world.
Publishing Perspectives: Are there any happy surprises in how this is working?
MB, Seattle: In my experience, you can (and must!) absolutely trust productive people to define the environment that best supports their own productivity. We are fortunate in that there’s very little stigma at Amazon Publishing around working from home, but I know it still very much exists in the professional world writ large.
Maybe a silver lining for all of this is that this stigma finally goes away. It’s deeply silly and outdated to think that the best way to know if someone is working hard is to watch them do it.
One obvious silver lining is getting back the time spent on commuting, and the stunningly clear environmental benefit of having that activity come to a halt.
FDO, Munich: While I prefer regular in-person interaction with my colleagues, I do notice that this setup allows for more focused work: for example I’m currently working on our publishing strategy for 2021 and beyond with less interruption than usual.
Also I enjoy investing the time and energy saved for the commute in a meditation and a long walk in the morning, and reading a book in the evening. I just finished book No. 6 of Ellin Carsta’s wonderful Hansen saga, set in Hamburg in the late 19th century.
The collaboration with international colleagues has changed very little, as we’re used to remote conversations and therefore are able to run our operations pretty smoothly.
If anything, it brings the team closer together as we’re getting insights into each other’s lives that we haven’t had before: seeing our coworkers’ kids joining on camera or laughing about Eoin’s longer hairstyle while hairdressers are closed. It is what makes these times special for the team.
EP, London: I find that taking the time in the morning to have a solid breakfast, whether that’s porridge made in a pot on the hob—no need to rush it in the microwave—or some poached eggs and toast, really helps set me up for the day. It allows me to think through the day ahead in a calm way.
Publishing Perspectives: Are you able to remain fully “open” to usual contacts by phone and email?
EP, London: We’re as fully open as we can be, which is pretty open. Our authors have been communicating with us more or less at the same level as before, and I think we’re proving open for business as much as we can for them, mostly successfully.
Publishing Perspectives: How is everyone doing in terms of mood and outlook?
EP, London: This changes day-to-day and maybe even hour-to-hour depending on the way people are feeling, the news from the outside world, and how much they’re missing friends, family, and loved ones.
We continue to bond over books we’re reading (I’ve been trying to convince everyone to read some of the more niche history titles that have been obsessing me recently like This Vast Southern Empire by Matthew Karp, Harvard University Press, 2016), as well as shows we’re watching (I somehow only just discovered Schitt’s Creek and love it), and recipes we’re trying.
FDO, Munich: One of the team members gives a lunchtime remote yoga class for colleagues.
Another highlight in the past week was a remote after-work happy hour—one team member spontaneously gave a concert on his saxophone!
MB, Seattle: And, of course, now is as good a time as ever to find a good book! A few Amazon Publishing titles we’re recommending this spring are Devoted, the new thriller by Dean Koontz; international hip-hop star Jason Diatiké’s memoir of growing up between cultures in Sweden and Harlem, A Drop of Midnight; and the first book in Melinda Leigh’s new romantic suspense series, Cross Her Heart.
I truly believe that reading, and reading together as a family, is a wonderful balm for all of this.
Publishing Perspectives: Have you discovered yet any sorts of naturally occurring networks among industry workers for trading tips and ideas about working remotely?
MB, Seattle: We’ve set up happy hours with colleagues, authors, and agents.
We’re sharing a lot of tips for everything from how to make video conferencing more effective—such as using video as much as possible (no make-up, bad-hair day and all)—to how to set good work-home boundaries, to how to make a weekend feel more like a weekend.
If You’d Like To Alert Us to Your Plans and Updates
We’re receiving good input from many associates in the world book industry, and we’d be glad to consider having you join them in telling us about your coronavirus-related news for our international readership. Please note that we don’t use articles written by industry professionals, but if you’d like us to consider doing an interview with you, contact Porter@PublishingPerspectives.com.