Brave new worlds

Today we face, as a trade, as businesses and as humans, an unparalleled challenge in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus, Covid-19, across the country and worldwide. Bookshops are closing or reducing their hours, books are being pulled from the schedules, author events have been cancelled, publishers have sent staff home. Libraries, with many workers on the front-lines, are waiting for advice. We have seen nothing like it, and the implications will be both sudden and far-reaching.

Most of the conversations I have been having, with senior staff and beyond, are gloomy but realistic. “It will be brutal but short, and we will get through it,” said one. We must all now step up and, where you can, lead. This will be a staggered process as we re-engineer our daily habits, and what we think we know today may not prove true tomorrow. We will make wrong and no doubt bad decisions, taken in good faith one day that will look like a misstep in hindsight. We must do our best, not just for ourselves but for those around us, and in particular for those who are in direct danger, whose businesses will suffer, whose jobs are at risk, or whose mental health will decline. This is a crisis and we must meet it head on.

No one will be untouched. The Booksellers Association is right to call for publishers to suspend their normal trading conditions and to extend credit terms, offer additional discount and free deliveries. To echo President Macron (of France), no bookshop should go down because of this, and the Publishers Association should consult with its members to establish what they can do, with France’s Hachette Livre already setting a good example. This most fragile but hugely important part of the ecosystem is now in danger. Publishers face their own crisis too, with Amazon’s decision to pull back on printed book sales a disaster for all, but in particular for small and medium-sized presses and specialists. Authors who will have seen their books postponed or simply fall off the radar will also be uniquely vulnerable, and we should all redouble our efforts to continue to surface their work now and into the spring. We go into this in good health, and must use that to limit any lasting damage to the trade.

The better news is that books are resilient; they do not wane physically, and they last, whether on shelves, in warehouses or in people’s hands. Digital will also now grow in importance. This is an opportunity to read, to read more widely than before, and reset. Many of us live a helter-skelter existence, and this period of isolation may provide perspective. We move from lifestyles built on convenience to ones rebuilt around the bare necessities. If there’s one message we all need to reinforce, it is that books are in this must-have category (Amazon, take note). What we do matters, and it endures, and in time there will be new tapestries for authors and publishers to explore, and a new world to explain.

The Bookseller will continue in its role throughout: to provide a centralised information service for the trade in print and online, with our team ready to report and amplify. Please use us as you see fit. We are here to help.