Continue and persist

Last week I wrote that in 2017 we neither influenced the world beyond the book, nor were we much influenced by it. It took five days for 2018 to remind us what we’ve been missing. In rebuffing the US president’s "cease and desist" demand, and in bringing forward publication of Michael Wolff’s explosive exposé into Trump’s White House, Fire and Fury, Macmillan in the US (and Little, Brown in the UK) has helped give publishers the fillip they needed. Just as every trade publisher is in want of a bestseller to make itself feel dynamic, so the publishing industry needs this occasional show of defiance to feel great again. In this case, a one-fingered salute to the man.

It is worth putting on record what Macmillan US chief executive John Sargent told staff in his well-received memo. "There is no ambiguity here. This is an underlying principle of our democracy. We cannot stand silent. We will not allow any president to achieve by intimidation what our constitution precludes him or her from achieving in court. We need to respond strongly for Michael Wolff and his book, but also for all authors and all their books, now and in the future." Equally robust was Macmillan’s US law firm: "My clients do not intend to cease publication, no such retraction will occur, and no apology is warranted."

Trump has done no harm to sales of the book: in the UK Little, Brown has shipped 330,000, with "tens of thousands" of e-books and audiobooks already sold. In the US, the print edition sold 28,567 units in two days, and Macmillan has orders for more than one million. As in the UK, the digital version has flown.

A few days before all this, I read that books were no longer leading the cultural conversation, and that those few remarkable tomes that break out were becoming rarer. The popular refrain is that readers are watching Netflix, or focused on their social media instead of engaging with literature. Yet we can all trade in anecdata: my social media is full of book readers enthusing about the books they’ve read, and that they also enjoy “Stranger Things” or “The Crown” does not appear to have stopped them reading.

In the UK last year, 190 million printed books were sold; in the US the number was 687 million. Add in library loans and digital sales, and these figures would double—at least. According to this week’s analysis of author sales (pp06–09), 1,233 writers had sales of between £100,000 and £250,000 in 2017, and 115 had sales of more than £1m. Our bookshop survey (pp18–19) shows indies growing their businesses.

I don’t wish to pretend that authors or bookshops have it easy, or that the book trade is not assailed on all sides by threats—some real—or that the sector is not mature. But I genuinely wonder, what other creative industry delivers so much for so many across such different areas—and defies a president?