With the UK government in turmoil, the Prime Minister on the edge, the Brexit deal trapped in purgatory and the official opposition in a dither, 2018 ends as it began: with politics to the fore, and a political book at the top of the charts.
The books sector can be thankful that despite, well, everything else, the business of selling books (across all formats) remains in the ascendancy thanks, once again, not to one dominant trend or big book but a range of them—from Fire and Fury that got this party started to those hardy perennials the Tattooist of Auschwitz, Eleanor Oliphant... and This is Going to Hurt, to critics’ favourite Normal People to the unexpected Man Booker winner Milkman, to the phalanx of children’s hits that seem to delight readers more than they interest reviewers.
The underlying trends look healthy—a change of ownership aside, Waterstones continues to improve, with a very clear signal sent out both by its acquisition of Foyles and m.d. James Daunt’s speech at the Independent Publishers Guild conference that it now wishes to play a central role in moving the trade forwards, as it did in the past. In contrast, Amazon is as subdued as it ever has been—a sure sign that something is afoot. Elsewhere on the high street, there is a gentle upswing, both in customer sentiment but also business reality—if indies are the bell-wether, then a nadir may have passed.
Publishing, though, is divided, with the corporates and indies such as Canongate, Faber and Profile among the few who can slug it out at the top of the charts, with everyone else—as Bluemoose’s Kevin Duffy puts it this week in our alternative predictions—finding that shelf space comes at a price. My hunch is that the haves will, at some point, look to the have-nots—not just for their authors, but also for their spark. We remain, as it was once said, better together. Or as the Brazilian publisher Luiz Schwarcz, c.e.o. of Companhia das Letras, wrote this week in an open letter on the state of bookselling in that land: “Books of all shapes and sizes need to survive.”
At the macro level a number of issues that have long- lingered will follow us into 2019—author income, diversity, e-book sales data, audiobook fees, the gender pay gap, global rights—to be joined by newer problems, including, but alas not limited to, paper prices, copyright post-Brexit, and the latest Open Access push, Plan S (that “S” in this case standing for short-sighted).
In general, we may look back at 2018 as the year when the storm gathered, rather than hit. We cannot pretend that the factors that led to Brexit, this split parliament and the political eruptions in countries as different as the US, France and Brazil (this week), will be easily resolved, or that the book business here can remain untouched (it has not elsewhere). But it was also a year when, despite it all, we triumphed, in little ways but also in significant developments that will shape this business.
Can we do it all again next year? Yes, we can. Happy Christmas and good luck!