Begin, again, repeat

By the time you read this, the British Book Awards “virtual” ceremony will have been run, the winners will have been announced and the trade will have celebrated a year featuring some of the amazing highs captured in our Nibbies’ headlights, against a backdrop of those considerable lows brought on by Covid, the lockdowns and social distancing. It will be some time before we can look back on this period with anything like the perspective necessary to properly judge it, but the awards mark a moment of recognition, and passing.

For those playing catch up the ceremony is available to view on our YouTube page here, or simply flick through our Winners’ Supplement. The short version is that books won, from Hamnet to Shuggie Bain, to Black and British to Diary of a Young Naturalist, the year was punctuated by examples of exceptional writing and publishing backed by ballsy bookselling, the sector able to swerve many of the boulders thrown across its way. The fact that, for the first time, an indie, Moon Lane, carried off the Book Retailer of the Year award tells you everything you need ever know about a sector built and sustained by hand-selling. For publishers there was recognition of their strong lists, particularly from Publisher of the Year, Orion—which, under its redoubtable m.d. Katie Espiner has been cresting a wave—but also from other winners such as children’s indie Sweet Cherry, Bloomsbury Academic, Canongate and Wonderbly, the last perfectly positioned for distanced purchasing.

Of course the awards only address what went before, not what is to come. As I said in my brief intro to the show, the job now is to do it all over again, the difference this time around is that we are armed with better knowledge of what works, and what will likely work again. We have learned to operate in a blended field, with digital now part of our day-to-day thinking and planning. This raises some big  questions; how to return to the cosiness of physical events without losing the inclusiveness of virtual spaces; how best and in what way to talk to readers; how to win back and retain customers who have become online purchasers. There is too a question around unlocking, as the adrenalin of change gives way to the complexities of a new reality. 

The good news is that the destination looks assured.People are craving physical contact, said bookshop owner Andy Rossiter at the Independent Publishers Guild’s Spring Conference this week, and they will look to bookshops to provide a a space for that. James Daunt, m.d. of Waterstones, speaking on the same panel, also presented an upbeat picture, revealing that though there were fewer customers at present (particularly in city centre stores), those returning to purchase in store were buying more books. His concern, he added, was how the shift to online purchasing, particularly on third-party websites, might have severed that crucial connection between reader and bookshop.

The awards is but a brief moment to look back at a year that was both better and worse than we could ever have imagined, a year from which we begin again.