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Books Are a Great Fit for Quarantine. The Book Business, Not So Much. – The New York Times

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During a normal week, Jordan Pavlin, the editorial director at Knopf, seldom ate at her desk. Depending on the day, she might be meeting with literary agents over lunch, catching up with an author over an after-work drink, or having a quick bite before a cocktail party for a newly released title.

She still doesn’t eat at her desk. Since her office closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, lunch is at her kitchen table, with her three teenagers, every day. “I’m driving them crazy,” she said.

You can read alone, you can write alone, but publishing is a very social business. Heavily concentrated in New York City, a lot of the work was traditionally done face to face — before the outbreak forced most offices to close. So while books are a good match for this moment when people are spending so much time at home, book publishing, in many ways, is not.

There is a certain intimacy to the book business. For many authors, turning in a manuscript is like handing over a chunk of their soul, and delicate conversations about revisions are generally best when you can look someone in the eye. Editors and agents build relationships over the course of years, learning each other’s tastes in writers, themes and ideas. The meandering conversations that lead there just don’t work as well on Zoom.

“I don’t necessarily need to take Eric to lunch for him to think of me for his next great novel,” Ms. Pavlin said of Eric Simonoff, a literary agent she’s known for almost 30 years whose clients include Jonathan Lethem and Jhumpa Lahiri. “But for the next generation, it would be harder. To create that bond without going for drinks and spending the time and saying the indiscreet things, all the stuff you need to do early on in your career to build lasting relationships.

“Of course, these are business relationships,” she said. “But it’s a business based on the stories you love.”

Chelcee Johns, an assistant editor at 37 Ink, an imprint at Simon & Schuster, is relatively early in her career. Before everyone began working remotely, she had been making an effort to meet agents for lunch at least once a week to build her connections and get more manuscript submissions coming in. As a young editor, she said, it was also easier for her to take advantage of the expertise around the office when she could pop by senior editors’ desks and not have to compete with their child-care obligations at home. Now she’s trying to network from a distance.

“The relationships are key, and I have seen agents be open to a Zoom coffee hangout. That’s what I’ve been trying to do,” Ms. Johns said. “I think two months in, people started to realize, ‘Oh, we’re in this,’ and everything picked back up, whether it’s submissions from agents or ‘OK, let’s get these meetings back in the books.’ This is our new normal for a lot longer than we thought.”

Jacey Mitziga, an assistant at the New York literary agency DeFiore and Company, was meeting regularly with agents, editors and other publishing employees around her age, hoping that as they climbed to more senior positions, they would grow together.

“We’re the next face in publishing, and I’m thinking about who I want to know and starting to build those relationships now,” she said. “But I would say that’s been a challenge. I feel like it’s been on pause.”

Some aspects of publishing are well suited to remote work. Without her commute from Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan, Ms. Johns said she finds more time to edit during the workweek by sitting down with manuscripts from roughly 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Indeed, many editors already worked from home one day a week so they could focus on actual editing, a part of the job that is often subsumed by the meetings and interruptions of office life. Alvina Ling, editor in chief of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, previously spent Mondays through Thursdays at the office, punctuated by business lunches two or three times a week at places like Morrell Wine Bar in Rockefeller Center.

“A lot of people from outside think editors read and edit all day, and that’s not the case,” she said.

On Fridays, Ms. Ling would set up at her kitchen table for marathon editing sessions. When she started working from home in mid-March, that much wasn’t new, but she did have to make some adjustments to her workstation. “I’ve switched sides of the table on videoconferencing because this one side has a little bit more of an attractive backdrop,” she said. “In the first couple of meetings people said, ‘Oh, I see your bike!’”

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

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    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

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      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


Like many industries, publishing is trying to figure out what from this forced experiment in remote work makes sense to keep. Can companies be more flexible about their staff working from home? Do they have to keep on renting so much office space? And did that meeting really need to be a meeting, or could it have just been an email?

“I miss seeing authors and agents,” Ms. Pavlin of Knopf said in an email, “and I still believe there are aspects of sitting together over a meal that foster intimacy and trust in ways that are genuinely essential to how we do business in this particular industry, an industry based on personal passions. But in retrospect that schedule seems unnecessarily overstuffed.”

Credit…Dave Caplan

But publishing is also about manufacturing physical objects that are beautiful, a process that relies on people working together across departments and with particular tools on hand. Production and design teams are equipped with high-end printers that are precisely calibrated to look like the finished product, for example, and light rooms with graphite gray walls that create a consistent and particular quality of light.

At home, Dave Caplan, the creative director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, nudges Legos out of the way and spreads illustrations under a skylight in his sons’ bedroom. It’s not quite the light rooms and fancy printers he’s used to, but it does give him both natural light and a big enough surface to see all the pages in a New York City apartment.

Like so many parents, Mr. Caplan is balancing working from home with taking care of his sons, Silas, 8, and Sebastian, 6. So he has set up an “office” in a closet in their bedroom. “It’s all of nine square feet, but it’s all mine,” he said.

But he has found some unique advantages to this arrangement: a built-in focus group.

“Every night after dinner, I’ll be working, and my son pops in and says, ‘What can I help you with today?’” Mr. Caplan said of Silas. “I show him what I’m working on, different versions of covers. Everybody’s an art director.”

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