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In London – and in cities across Europe and beyond – it is like living in a science fiction novel.  Major tourist sites like Trafalgar Square are eerily quiet as the government’s directive to work from home and avoid unnecessary journeys takes effect.

Penguin Random House, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster have all closed their offices, and Hachette and HarperCollins are urging as many people as possible to work from home.  Smaller publishers like Faber and Canongate have also followed suit, while among literary agencies Curtis Brown is keeping on a skeleton staff in the office but Aitken Alexander has closed.

In a sombre and touching letter to staff, Penguin Random House UK CEO Tom Weldon said: “Many of us have navigated issues and crises at work but never of this magnitude.  I know that you will do what you can to help and support one another and take responsible action to reduce the risk to others.  While doing so, please be sure to protect your own mental and physical wellbeing …

“This is a testing time but I often think that it is in these moments that people, communities and companies are at their best.  I know that our company is strong and rest assured that we will do everything we can to support our colleagues, authors and partners in the book industry.

“Thank you in advance for your patience, commitment and creativity in ensuring that we keep focused on getting our books into the hands of readers; there has never been a more significant time to share the power of reading.  And take care of yourself and your family and friends; nothing is more important right now..

Pan Macmillan chief executive Anthony Forbes Watson said that it had closed its offices “until further notice” and had asked everyone at the company to work from home “for the foreseeable future”.  He added: “We have taken this decision in order to prioritise the health and wellbeing of everyone at Pan Macmillan and those who depend on us. We are well set up as a company for remote, flexible working and our intention is to continue to progress our business while operating virtually from home. I know that the team at Pan Macmillan will be as adaptable, creative and collaborative as ever, communicating in our usual open and energetic way to tackle every challenge and make the most of every opportunity as we enter these uncharted waters.”

Waterstones has temporarily closed its university campus shops and the list of cancelled author events, industry conferences, festivals and meetings grows longer by the day.  The Booksellers Association (BA) has written an open letter asking for support for bricks and mortar bookshops.  The measures include grace periods on payments, extending returns limits, credits for returns in transit, free delivery and returns carriage for bookshops, free shipping for consumers home delivery, additional discount and the removal of caps on returns.

The BA says: “It’s unfortunate that the hallmarks of the crisis management – self-isolation, social distancing and avoiding people and gatherings – are the very opposite of what bookshops pride themselves on offering to their communities, and what have become the positive emblems of the renaissance of bookselling recently. They also, unfortunately, play to the strengths of multinational online retailers, and we want to ensure that we are reminding consumers that they can still use their local bookshop to buy books even if they are practising social distancing.  We have created a range of resources available for BA members, including social media assets to help reinforce that point. Many, many booksellers are using those messages and amplifying with their own.”

No one quite knows how the pandemic will pan-out, or indeed how long the restrictions on movement will last.  This is a science fiction novel with a plot that is changing by the day.