Finding the good place

Is it possible to have a “good” Brexit? It’s an open question. But were it feasible, then the book trade could yet find itself in that happy place.

This may be blithe thinking. The government is facing a crunch period of negotiation and re-negotiation as it seeks to secure a deal and then sell it back to its own parliament: it is likely that the road ahead will not become clear for some months, while the future trading relationships that will define the UK on the world’s stage could remain undecided for months, possibly years.

Yet the book trade should not face the tricky period ahead in bad heart. Having navigated digital and the past recession, we are a lean business, as well equipped as we have ever been to understand and reach our customers.

As those who attended the BA’s annual conference can testify, bookshops are feeling pretty positive going into Christmas; while at Waterstones, m.d. James Daunt told this week’s Independent Publishers Guild conference that he was targeting modest growth this year, backed by its store opening programme. As I mentioned last week, the high street is evolving, but as other retailers suffer, books appear to be coming to the fore.

We are also fortunate: the book (in its many forms) remains nonpareil, both in terms of its ability to convey complex ideas and narratives, and also to convince the reader of its essential veracity. When we talk of “fake news”, we do not include books, even though authors can be the biggest spinners of all. This week’s triumph of Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House (Simon & Schuster), the past success of Fire and Fury (Little, Brown) by Michael Wolff, and the ongoing strength of Yuval Noah Harari’s three Vintage-published titles—Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century—show that Brexit, and Trump, are changing what we read, and pretty significantly. A prime minister Boris or Corbyn could also be good for books.

Headed to Frankfurt, publishers and agents are circumspect, and rightly so. Many are enjoying the export boost of the low pound, but remain wary of what lies ahead. Fluctuations in trading relationships are not necessarily bad for books: the ability of publishers and agents to cut deals in the face of often hostile climates (most recently in relation to the appalling situation in Turkey) is part and parcel of how publishing thrives.

I was reminded of this at Pan Macmillan’s event Dear Mac, held this week to celebrate its 175th year. Authors such as Julia Donaldson, David Olusoga and Joanna Trollope read out letters from its archive. We learned how Thomas Hardy remained loyal to his desired publisher even after his early efforts were rudely rebuffed; how Christina Rossetti tried to re-negotiate for a profit share after an unexpected hit; how Lewis Carroll paid for his own printing and marketing—at least in his early days.

Are today’s publishers capable of such dexterity in their dealing and dedication to the end results? I hope so. As we face up to Brexit, it is our wits that will guide us towards the good place.