'Brexit will have a major impact on the book trade'

Amidst all the alarums and excursions over Brexit, the book trade – publishers, bookshops, authors – have hardly been mentioned. Big authors like Robert Harris, John Lanchester and Zadie Smith have been at the forefront of anti-Brexit denunciations. Brexit has given birth to a lively weekly paper, The New European, on sale in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s and stuffed full of some of the UK’s best writers expressing their pain.

On the other hand, one of the UK star political publishers, Biteback’s c.e.o., Iain Dale, issues daily tweets in support of Brexit and uses his LBC platform to denounce those of his writers who think Brexit is as smart a move as the United States walking away from Europe and the rejecting the League of Nations in 1920.

There are Brexit books galore and Waterstones and other bookstore chains organise lively discussions and debates on Brexit (personal declaration: Waterstones' managers hosted several debates between me as author of Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe, published by IB Tauris in January 2015 which predicted the referendum outcome and pro-Brexit commentators and MPs and I am planning more based on my new book). But what will be leaving the EU mean for the book business?

European publishers publish more than half a million titles a year. The total EU publishing business is bigger than that of America. Price maintenance systems (prix du livre or preisbindung) mean that bookshops, not just big chains but individually owned bookshops, are a feature of many medium and even small towns in France, Germany and other EU member states.

The EU has directives on copyright and there has been a royal battle going on between Amazon and publishers, especially in Germany, over price-cutting. French supermarkets all have big book sales and displays with latest editions but books are seen as creative and professional product, and not just at full RRP: another commodity to be sold as cheaply as possible.

There are stringent EU rules on privacy and data protection and transmission and small claims libel actions are possible, which might be welcome in the UK as a protection against vexatious libel claims, but would also lead to more stringent fact-checking than is always the case in UK publishing.

Britain outside the EU would become a “Third Country” rather like the United States is. This might lead to US publishers shipping their books directly for sale into the UK with a £ price sticker over the $ one, rather than sell rights to a British publisher who then brings the book out as a designed and printed in Britain product.

After Brexit, stand by for US publishers and wholesalers to sell books and mass market paperbacks directly to European outlets from American warehouses rather than via British publishers.

The European Commission has a special agency which funds translation from European languages into English. After Brexit, that funding channel will dry up and it is hard to see a government that is composed largely of ministers who have spent 15 years or more denouncing Europe finding the replacement money to support writers in the 27 other member states being translated so we can read them here.

Big continental publishers like Hachette and Bertelsmann have become used to a constant interchange between British and European publishing executives and of course, EU citizens have been a staple of book store employment with a willingness to work the long hours bookshops are now open for and for the not-always-high pay that the industry can afford to offer.

The proposal from both the Government and the Labour Party that Britain should bring in old-fashioned Cold War era work and residence permits, or even quotas for EU citizens in different sectors or regions – so-called ‘immigration controls’ – will require a cumbersome bureaucracy and endless form-filling and human resource management problems for both publishers and bookshops.
If you currently send a book to Switzerland or Andorra from outside the EU, the Post Office asks that you put on a customs declaration form. If Britain leaves the Custom Union as many hardline Brexit ministers desire, all books will have to be cleared for customs – including those sent to Ireland.

Lots of form-filling lies ahead for publishers!

The EU is updating and bringing in new rules, especially on digital publishing and copyright. They are all ultimately overseen in the case of any dispute by the European Court of Justice which Prime Minister May says should no longer have any place in Britain.

I travel and work in Brussels and regularly visit EU capitals and so far in meetings with Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator and ministers or officials responsible for Brexit policy in the EU27, no-one has ever mentioned the impact of Brexit on the world of books. It is certainly not a priority for any British politicians to my knowledge. But if in two years’ time the UK has left the EU Single Market and Customs Union and refuses to abide by current and planned directives and regulations on the pan-European book trade, then the impact will be very dramatic indeed.

Denis MacShane was Europe minister under Tony Blair, and is author of Brexit, No Exit : Why (in the End) Britain Won't Leave Europe (published by I.B. Tauris).