Après nous, le déluge

Last week, more than 140 French independent publishers wrote an open letter claiming that under French publishing’s happy facade, lies a real story of “overproduction”, which floods bookstores, drowns out quality books, shortens the shelf life of books, and thus unfairly weighs on small presses. This will be exacerbated by Covid-19, where post-lockdown “innumerable ‘new’ titles from the major groups will enter the bookshops at a forced pace”. Sound familiar? I mention it because it speaks to a conversation we need to have on this side of the channel about our own book ecosystem, and how coronavirus has left us all, as the French might say, foutu...

There is much to praise in the letter, and some to criticise. The insinuation that the bigger publishers cannot also produce slow-selling books, or indeed quality titles, is not a good one; neither is the suggestion that booksellers are unable to curate their own shops to their readers’ tastes. It is also not the case that the bigger publishers will emerge unscathed from this: the French Publishers Association has said the pandemic has inflicted “severe and lasting damage” on the sector.

But overall the message is right: diversity of thought and reading is best achieved with a broad network of booksellers and publishers. Many of them, necessarily, independent.

Two weeks ago, we reported on how small presses were uniquely impacted by the lockdown. Just as the bigger publishers have found sales holding up better than had been thought, many indies have found the opposite, with Arts Council England’s emergency funding, now just landing, a life-saver. As in France, if bookshops are deluged with big publishers’ books when they reopen, small presses will find their lives not much improved post-lockdown, and in need of further support.

But there may be some differences. The notion that the corporates here have simply pushed everything into the autumn is not wholly true. According to our analysis, while up to 50% of non-fiction titles, and slightly fewer fiction books, were moved out of May and June, many were simply pushed to the summer, and others into next year. The bun fight is still on, but as my colleague Tom Tivnan writes, the rest of this year will be big, but not that big. Some have spotted the gaps too. Little Toller brought forward publication of Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist (to 25th May), and has now reprinted. Bloomsbury's goodish results for March and April suggest its strategy of moving only a few titles has worked for them.

The letter also points to a wider problem: that of overproduction, and how it affects cultural diversity. With so many new titles published each season, it seems inevitable that some books will be outmuscled. There is a truth to this. Even before Covid-19, it was rare for a small press to appear in our bestseller charts. However, as we can now see from the books that currently sit atop of such lists, diversity is not well served from fewer books being available, but from more bookshops, expertly curated by empowered booksellers.

There is no one view of publishing; big isn’t bad, indie isn’t a euphemism for virtuous. But what we can all agree on is that Covid-19 has shown us a world sans bookshops. And it is one to be resisted. Non?