Closed Until Further Notice: Project Management in the time of COVID-19

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

A lot has happened in 2020 and it’s only July.

It’s only July and yet this year has become the embodiment of the (alleged) ancient curse may you live in interesting times. I won’t provide a list of all that has happened as I’m sure you are well-informed. This is not an informative blog post, rather it concerns only a minor thing that happened in 2020, and which impacted only my small-little-life: I interned at Stryvling Press. 

Okay, it’s also a little bit about the global pandemic.

Many of my colleagues talked about what they expected from enrolling in the MLitt Publishing Studies course, and many of them have already described their role at Stryvling Press on this blog. So first things first, here is what I did not expect from the course: Emails. So many emails. Which is, ironically, related to how I ended up as a Project Assistant.   

Where I’m from, we phone a lot. It takes weeks to receive any sort of email reply. Needless to say, emails weren’t my forté. Faced with the challenge of having to write a business email to an author as one of my in-class exercises, here are some of the mistakes that I made:

  • Too many exclamation points (!!);
  • “Rude” tone;
  • Not collaborative in my approach to the recipient;

Reading this feedback, I started to realise, in primis, how different it was to write an email in the UK compared to in Italy; in secundis, I needed to step up my game. It had now become a personal matter, as back in my country I had been the one to draft emails for my peers; the one who knew the etiquette and the required formality levels. It was my business card and how I got my past interviews and jobs. 

Dead-set on going down my self-inflicted (anxious) business email-writing-conquering path, I decided that I needed a job where I would have to write tons of emails. Enter stage left: the Stryvling Press Internship brief: 

The Project Manager will manage the entire workflow process; agree, monitor and facilitate deadlines; identify and troubleshoot any problems; and ensure effective communication among team members. The person must be diplomatic, a good communicator, and able to let people get on with their jobs while providing support as necessary.

Looking at these words, I knew what they meant: emails. As a bonus, the role spoke to my passion for scheduling and tabling my life on Excel. Additionally, this job would give me the opportunity to monitor the entire workflow and, possibly, gain in-depth field knowledge on every publishing department. 

Here, I admit one thing: I enrolled in the course believing that marketing would be my thing, coming from a Linguistics background. However, the more I learned about the industry, the more difficult it was for me to pick a side. At the same time, this meant that I started to feel extremely intimidated by my classmates. They were all brilliant and, most of the time, extremely confident. Many of them already had some previous knowledge of the industry, and they envisioned their future within it very clearly. I had just arrived in Scotland. I was not as fluent as I wished to be in English and I was in denial that I needed time to adjust to the place and culture. Only later did I learn that actually, everyone was as intimidated as I was, that everyone was still brilliant but also lovely, and that I was learning as much from their company as they were from mine.

What I do as a Project Assistant: Emails. I’m a communicator and an administrator. Mostly, though, I spend my time writing emails, reading emails, writing more emails, producing agendas, Gantt charts, replying to emails, handling the website, forwarding emails, and brainstorming with our project manager, writing yet more emails.

I would like to think that I have learned how to write business emails in English by now.

Like many other international students, my journey through this pandemic started way before the lockdown at the end of March. I remember sitting in my family house in London in late February; I had gone there for a happy occasion. I was writing my research proposal while tripping to see some friends which I hadn’t seen in ages and trying not to refresh the London Book Fair website every three seconds in fear that it would be cancelled and I would miss the opportunity to go. (Spoiler: it was cancelled.) I had also been monitoring COVID-19 news in Italy—my country—for weeks already. There was a lot of panic, much scoffing, and many insecurities. They were going into a lockdown, however the numbers were not as bad as they would later become.

At that point in time, I had not received a single phone call or message from a friend or a family member about COVID-19. After that day, however, they came. From friends stuck in another country trying to get home, from friends hospitalised or sick in bed, from friends terrified for their health, from my family, who were anxious about our most vulnerable family members.

I know that this scenario is exactly the same for thousands and thousands of people, who like me, were and are living in a sort of double-pandemic-experience. It was like living within two timelines at the same time: Your own home country shutting down, numbers going up and up and up until finally they went down; and then the UK closing down, numbers skyrocketing and borders closing until further notice, and all on different time scales.

How has the pandemic affected Stryvling Press and the publishing process? 

Well, Stryvling Press are lucky. First of all, we are financially privileged, as we are funded by our own University, being a university-based micro-press. We didn’t go through the financial hardships that hit other indies, such as 404INK, Knights Of, Jacaranda Books––just to name a few. The list is longer. Much longer. Secondly, we are lucky in the respect that we have an amazing team of people on the board. I am still in awe at the work ethics displayed by my colleagues, and their strong sense of responsibility towards the press. 

We also managed to meet the original project deadline! Amazing, right?

However, no matter our concerted efforts, there wasn’t much we could do in the face of a global, deadly pandemic. As we were sending the Time and Tide files to the printers, the UK was closing down. Even before our freshly printed books were shipped to us, Stirling University’s campus closed, meaning we couldn’t access our books, which sat in a locked, inaccessible building for weeks. We couldn’t announce a publication day until we could resolve this issue. We didn’t even have access to our previously published books (Inklings, 2018; Circling the Point, 2019), meaning we weren’t selling a single copy. The giveaway we organised in the spring was affected by this too; we couldn’t send the winner their prize.

Another thing that happened was the fast spread of chaos in every other workplace on Earth. No office was replying to us anymore because, understandably, they had more important matters to deal with than a tiny micro-press run by a small team of hopeful publishing students.

We were left in a vacuum. 

We persevered. We moved our meetings to Zoom, we resolved the few issues we could resolve, and kept the authors updated on the goings on. We also started working on the Time and Tide audiobook, the first one ever produced for the press; and we started cautiously planning launch events for the summer, hoping to host our launch party at Made in Stirling. As it turned out, neither of those two projects are still on; with the audiobook team having to bow out and Made in Stirling going into lockdown the same as everyone else. Many of our authors, Stryvling Press team mates, and MLitt course mates have travelled back to their home countries. We are only now able to send out author copies and open the webshop for business. We revamped and restructured and rethought everything we had planned, and just like every other publisher in the world, we moved our launch events online.

COVID-19 is a global trauma. What we discovered along the way is that checking on people (even to just say hi!) is an art and a pleasure, that every single one of us is coping differently, and that it’s okay when things don’t go your way. 

As sad as I am for what was not, I am also extremely proud of our achievements. Because you know, this year we published a book. For most of us publishing this book was our first  experience with the publishing process, and we had to do it during a pandemic. 

This book, this wonderful, brilliant book, full of poetry and memories and stories, geese and lads and kelpies, brimming with talent and told by Scottish and international voices… this book would have been a completely different product if our authors had not had faith in us, if I had not enrolled in this course; if Madelaine had decided she was better off studying Physics; if Pam and George had not been curious about production, if we hadn’t had Anna and Juliana designing our book cover and social media graphics, or if we hadn’t had Emma and Eimear’s hard work on editing every story, poem, paragraph—there isn’t a comma out of place. Have you seen our social media accounts and the content we have so carefully curated for you? We have the marketing team—Jenni, K, Bethany and Naoise—to thank for making us look good (and dare I say, we do look good). I am humbled by my colleagues and I am grateful that our authors trusted us to take good care of their words. Time and Tide is as much a product of its time and place as all the rest of us are, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A lot of things happened in 2020. 

As for me, I published a book. No, I am not in the book: I’m not a writer, I’m a publisher.

Federica, Project Management

Find out more about Federica on our team page!

Time and Tide is out now in paperback and ebook.

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