Fearless things

The book business has had a decent couple of weeks. From Eimear McBride’s Baileys Prize win to the opening of Foyles’ bold new flagship, summer has started well. There is much to look forward to later in the year—as Alice O’Keeffe noted last week, and Caroline Sanderson reiterates, September is a stand-out month for new titles, featuring novelists as diverse as David Nicholls, Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood, and non-fiction books from the likes of Clare Balding, Stephen Fry, Paul Merton, Alan Johnson and, though it pains me to say it, even Luis Suarez.

But this would not be publishing if there wasn’t a dark cloud, even on this golden horizon. There is no summer party this year at which Amazon will not have a cloudy presence: no conversation with a publisher that will not be swiftly terminated should I venture to ask about the Seattle giant. At the Foyles party, it was left to Christopher Foyle to break the silence: “We all suffer from something called the human condition. When one player achieves a monopolistic market position they will start to abuse it.”

Foyle’s pay-off was that publishers were “starting to realise this”, and should offer booksellers, such as Foyles, the same terms. “That would be nice.”  Foyle was half right. The challenge for publishers is not how to give other booksellers matching terms, but how far they can go in resisting Amazon’s advances. Few seem positive about this: Amazon is seeking a fundamental shift.

Publishing might console itself that it is winning the PR fight. But a BBC2 “Newsnight” report on Amazon was typical of the type, lacking anyone speaking up for publishing from one of the big publishing groups.

An outsider to this world might think that the agglomeration of publishing in the 1990s meant publishing became more corporate. But publishing is too human to be truly corporate: its businesses too unique. The Rising Stars feature shows that this is an industry driven by individual creatives, backed more often than not by a collegiate, rather than corporate, will. It is the cogs, not the machine, that make the difference.

In her Baileys speech, McBride said publishing had become “homogenous and conservative and market driven, under false pretences”. It is the last two words that are important here. Publishing might be naturally resistant to corporatisation, but it often tries hard to demonstrate otherwise. This is a shame. The 24/7 social world we now inhabit allows publishers to develop multiple conversations with their audiences. Not being corporate is actually helpful to this. As McBride reminded us, to be a reader is to be a fearless thing. The same can be said of publishing.