In his talk at the Independent Publishers Guild Spring Conference, held digitally and largely successfully this week, Bloomsbury chief executive Nigel Newton remarked on how publishing was used to inhabiting a “crisis”; we are after all a business built on many, many failures, often taking big leaps into the never-never. Or as Newton said: “We are used to getting it wrong.”
It’s not a new analogy (and in fact Newton is one of the more positive publishers, as he was in his talk). However, the sector is known for its doom-mongers, who warn of a sky that is perpetually falling on us, but which never does. It is one of our enduring myths, speaking both to the durability of the sector, but also to our privilege. We know that in the end, we’ll be okay. For publishers it is that a few books will work, and will pay for all the rest. For booksellers, and this was manifest during Waterstones m.d. James Daunt’s talk, it is that print books will endure, as they long have; their role fundamental.
There are crises, and then there are crises, however, and the corona-crisis feels to me like it has taken up a more dangerous space than others. Just this week Blackwell’s closed five campus stores “in order to protect the future health of the business”; in Ireland, Eason reported last week that it planned to cut 150 jobs and put some other staff on a four-day week from 1st June as it looks to reduce its costs by 30% in response to the financial hit; fellow Irish bookshop, and past Nibbies regional winner The Blessington Bookstore, announced it would not be reopening, “the emotional, physical and financial strain of trying to hang on is too immense,” it noted.
It is impossible to imagine that there won’t be further change too: Frankfurt may have declared its October fair open for visitors, but the pull-out of nearly all the major publishers indicates it will be an event largely engaged with at a distance. With more than £100,000 now raised, indie presses Knights Of and Jacaranda have reached their first target, but for them, along with other small presses, the challenge of reaching their audiences in a post-corona environment remains acute.
Some of the issues we face today pre-date corona. The huge rallying of support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis has been notable. The book business has owned up to its own slowness in correcting the inequities endemic in a sector dominated by white middle-class graduates, and it is important that the initiatives begun and committed to in the areas of inclusivity and representation are not side-tracked or derailed by the effort of emerging from the current lockdown. As DK publishing m.d. Rebecca Smart told the IPG event, there aren’t things that you can put on hold waiting for corona to be over. This is one.
But I, like many, will now wonder if this is enough. The book trade remains a positive environment for some and an improving one for others. But we cannot erase our own culpability in failing to deal with, or at times even acknowledge, a crisis where the sky actually did fall in. But that is the nature of privilege, and I am sorry for it.