In June 1975, ahead of the previous European Union referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Economic Community, publisher George Weidenfeld argued that the “close connections between British and European publishers and retail organisations” would be “valuable to the British book trade” and were more likely to be successful with Britain in the EEC. It is a sober analysis, and after last week’s vote to exit the European Union, one worth keeping in mind in the months ahead.
More than 40 years on, it is hard to look on “Brexit” so dispassionately. Not only have we forged business links with our European partners, we have grown together emotionally. For many of us born into this age, our European identity is as closely felt as the nationality stamped on our passports; the free movement of labour has created opportunity and friendship. I make these points not to underplay the business impact of “Brexit”, but because the book trade is not built solely by business transactions. Emotion underpins this sector and optimism drives it forward. For those I have been speaking to this week, the former is running high, while the latter is at rock bottom. In moving on we will need to address not just that one side has lost, but what has been lost.
In business terms, we can begin now to dimly scratch the surface of what happens next. Fluctuations in the pound are not helpful, but neither are they disastrous for big publishers that trade globally; there will be some pressure on rights with deals worth less to foreign publishers/agents than they were, while US publishers will eye the EU greedily; investment in both business opportunities and research will fall; and we may well stumble back into a recession that will severely threaten the high street—again.
Publishing is not so healthy that it could easily survive another recession, while high street bookshops are still in recovery, resurgent perhaps but on a fragile base. Most people I know in the business are working double the time just to keep up, and on thinning resources. This year (after seven years of retrenchment) things were starting to look up. This may knock the wind out of them. The sector will survive but like the UK it will, in the short term, be distracted and, in the medium term, diminished. Those at the bottom of the food chain, authors, illustrators, small businesses, start-ups, and suppliers will get it worst. Resilience is, of course, now part of the DNA. After nearly a decade of proving that, we all had hoped for a different story to tell in 2016.
The lessons from all this are clear. At The Bookseller’s uplifting Marketing & Publicity Conference this week, the talk was about spreading the word further, taking books out of their comfort zone and breaking out of the “usual publishing circles”. We will now need to define the future together, and what we put into books, how we publish them, who writes them and for whom they are written, will be vital in giving us influence.
I am hopeful for the book business because I see the people in it, and through initiatives such as our Rising Stars have watched how the trade has embraced the changes many felt were necessary. And Lord Weidenfeld was right: we can trade internationally without being part of a European bloc. But the emotional scars from all this run deep and they may never be renegotiated.