Publishing does not go back to school quietly after its summer prorogation. This week the Booker judges unveiled a striking shortlist, with Booker judges chair Peter Florence fulsome in his praise for the "vibrant and deeply adventurous publishing industry". Next week, the Booksellers Association’s annual conference brings booksellers to the fore, while Tuesday sees the launch of Margaret Atwood’s eagerly awaited (overly so by some)—and Booker shortlisted—The Testaments (Chatto), the first of many big beasts lined up for a season agent Jonny Geller has called "the busiest autumn for fiction I can remember".
For booksellers, many coming off the back of a strong summer, the conference will build on the positive mood that prevails in the UK books business, thanks to rising indie numbers, growing high street sales, and the revived Waterstones (under its jet-setting leader James Daunt, now also c.e.o. of Barnes & Noble, of course).
On the agenda at the conference are rates, rents and—ironically—the health of the rest of the high street, with Nic Bottomley, BA president, concerned that, having weathered the Amazon storm for 20 years, bookshops do not become the “last shiny teeth on a gap-filled high street”. Meanwhile, sustainability, building a pre-order function, and their own mental health are also priorities for the bookshops we spoke to this week.
For publishers, the slate is scarcely any less full, with the autumn crucial, and the promise of a shiny new decade just four months away. The bigger publishers, or those who run portfolio businesses, have had a good recent run. The political trauma has played into the hands of their non-fiction lists, while children’s publishing has moved centre stage (see the Children’s Conference), the books championed by both parts of the trade for their digitally-resistant parent-friendly qualities. Even the recent battle with Audible, over the audio retailer’s speech-to-text initiative, has seen the corporates pull off a rare legal win, the audio specialist agreeing to delays (for publisher titles) until the licensing issues are resolved/agreed.
For smaller presses the Booker success of Norwich indie Galley Beggar provides a welcome fillip at a time when even a growing legacy of prize successes does not guarantee support from the bigger high street booksellers for the smallest publishers. For deeply adventurous publishing to stand a chance, it needs to backed by equally adventurous bookselling, operating at scale, and driven not by discount, but customer demand. The indie bookshop chart for the first half of the year shows how different the market looks when it is stripped of homogeneity.
Though there is little time to think about Brexit here, Brexit will doubtless come for us anyway, or as Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said it recently in parliament, we may yet feel compelled to “consider the chaos this concatenation of circumstances could create”. Preparing for—and living with—this uncertainty is now a given. Books are the salve, of course, bookshops—as The Book Hive’s Henry Layte put it to us this week—the “sanctuary”.
We are all testament to that.